Cheer Three: Gossip as Literature
I. The Dark Ages of Gossip
Jane Goodall, guardian and student of chimpanzees, was watching one of her families scrambling around on an African hillside when she noticed one little fellow, a quite insignificant one, pick up an empty tin canister and let it roll downhill. As it bumped along, it made a varied and considerable noise, and every chimpanzee in the family stopped whatever it was doing at the moment and came running to watch it go and listen to its clattering music...The little chimpanzee ran after it, picked it up, took it back up the hill, rolled it down again. The family could not get enough of it. By the time he gave up from weariness or hunger, little Master Insignificant had amassed so much admiration and prestige the he rose at one bound from near the bottom to almost the top of the severely structured pecking order which rules all chimpanzee families. From this time forward he ranked only two or three rungs below the Dominant Male.
I doubt if the chimpanzee brain is genetically endowed with the ability to make a lifetime job out of canister-rolling, let alone pass the secrets of the trade on to future generations. The brains available to early humans, our ancestors, were made of richer stuff. In the daily round of gossip in some primeval cave or forest clearing, a clever gossiper might easily observe that one of the events he was recounting seemed to hold the interest of his hearers more than others, and he or another might observe that this did not depend so much on the nature of the event as on the way it was being told. He could then in the course of time work out the basic techniques of narrative that would be valid from those days to the days of Chekhov and Stephen King. Effect follows cause. Past leads to present and to future. Character molds action and is revealed by action. A story has to have a beginning a middle and an end, though not necessarily in that order. Pieces of information deliberately withheld increase suspense. Repetition adds emphasis. An axe picked up at the beginning of a story achieves its full dramatic effect when it crashes some neighbor's skull at the end.
It was the beginning of literary art, though literature in the technical sense would not appear until the invention of writing several hundred thousand years later. Oral or written, its first function was to tell a story.
A story, as the first story-tellers in forest or cave learned, is a form of magic. Events which occurred in another time, another place, are transferred by mysterious immaterial means like the sound of a human voice into the minds of those who hear or read the story, and can may arouse reactions of delight or grief or rage more intense than witnessing the original action might have done. It might affect their whole lives forever after. At the very least it could make the long dark nights in forest or cave less lonely, less threatening.
People would like to hear over and over again how grandpa killed that monstrous bear, what grandma learned from that ghost she met in the field of giant mushrooms. If the stories were spicy enough, they might be repeated over and over again, for generation after generation, being continually changed by the skill of different story-tellers to fit the changing environment of their audiences.
The ability to call up memories of common ancestors can be as important to the survival of a tribe as the ability to make rain, and it is no wonder that the story-teller has been always regarded with some awe, much like that aroused by Jane Goodall's canister-rolling chimpanzee, and acquired the same kind of social prestige.
Whether this was the first of all arts, or was preceded by dance or song or sculpture, is a question of only academic interest. All works of art that have survived to our day, whether they be cave paintings or stories of monkey-headed gods or dances to make the crops grow, however immeasurably old they may seem to us, are the end-product of hundreds of thousands of years of development and experimentation, distortion and improvisation. All artists, by the time they come into view in the historical record, are in highly specialized castes, with definite social functions and social privileges. From the earliest times we know of, story-tellers were clearly set off from the general run of mankind, as they still are in illiterate or semi-literate societies, from Tanzania to Wall Street.
While John Millington Synge was in the Aran Islands about a hundred years ago gathering material for his plays, a story-teller arrived from the mainland, a great event for the islanders. He had many tales to keep them enthralled, one of them about a Captain Connolly who lived far off down the coast. The captain's adventures were quite familiar to Synge, they came straight out of the plot of Shakespeare's Cymbeline King of Britain recast with Irish characters. A man who could tell stories like that was sure of a warm welcome, plenty of food and drink and a few coppers.
If he had been around a thousand years earlier, this raggedy old man would probably have been richly robed, and would have worn golden chains around his neck, his every word would have been treasured, he would have been a bard.
Since modern poets with a high opinion of their own insights, like William Blake, have described themselves as bards, the idea has caught on that bards were wild-eyed wild-haired men who like hippies of a bygone day wandered over suitably wind-swept landscapes chanting whatever profundities or whatever nonsense might go through their untamed minds. In fact, the ancient Irish bards were civil servants, receiving stipends fixed by law. They sat close to the King at table, and they sang for their supper. They operated under procedural rules as strict as those of any modern bureaucrat. They recited traditional tales of traditional heroes in rigidly traditional forms, or they recited tales of the great deeds of their living kings in the same traditional forms. Since they were responsible for keeping the king's exploits alive in a world beyond time, an Other World, where all the important decisions were made, they had immense prestige, and no battle between two bands of cattle-thieves was considered officially ended till bards from both sides had met and decided who would get the deathless glory of having won it.
It was not to be expected that a bard who sat at the king's table would be interested in workaday quotidian gossip. Adulteries that were going on before his eyes were of no concern to him, he sang only of how, far away and long ago, Queen Deirdre had been unfaithful to King Conchobar of Ulster, and how she and her lover Naissi after a happy life of sin in Scotland had come back home to meet their doom.
Story-tellers in other lands did not necessarily have the magical powers of the Irish bards, who could kill a man or make a woman uglywith a line of verse, or their exalted position in society, but everywhere they were a class apart, and the stories they told stood apart too. Against the artlessly spoken gossip of ordinary folk, they placed the solemn cadenced words of tradition which in the course of time would become the written word, Scripture. Any lowly camel-driver could entertain his fellows at night with rude and lively chatter about how the wily wife of a Bedouin chieftain tricked her senile husband into disinheriting his oldest son and leaving all his property to a younger one, her favorite, It was only when this story became attached, in solemnly cadenced prose, to Rebecca and Isaac and Esau and Jacob, and thus became a central event in the formation of the nation of Israel, that it began to be faithfully memorized and eventually written down.
That could take a long time, hundreds or thousands of years, and it is obviously impossible to hope to recreate the original gossip. So all those years, comprising all human history till the day before yesterday, must be regarded as the Dark Ages of Gossip.
"Dark Ages" is a literary term of abuse, which is applied by scholars to periods of which they disapprove because they find their manners uncouth or simply because there are too few surviving records to be studied in academically respectable depth. But the truth seems to be that humanity has always gone on developing through dark ages as well as light ones, though not necessarily in ways we approve of. The miserable arthritic humans who limped through the few poverty-stricken millennia of the Mesolithic Period learned how to domesticate the dog, which had been beyond the powers of their ancestors, the great artists of the long and glorious Paleolithic. The barbarians who destroyed Greco-Roman civilization in what are called the Dark Ages of Europe learned how to harness horses without choking them, something of which Aristotle and Julius Caesar were incapable. But no bard thought it worth his while to sing of such things however more important they may seem to serous folk today than the sorrows of Queen Deirdre.
Even in the absence of records, it seems reasonable to assume that, whatever the complexity or sophistication of their culture, people went on gossiping steadily about their families, their neighbors, their kings, the tribesmen from across the river whose cattle they stole, all the while improving their techniques as their societies and their languages grew in scope and capacity. Only, during all those interminable ages, gossip had no official sanction, no dignity.
Just as it had no place in official history, as we saw in the previous chapter. it had no place in the poems and prose destined to give pleasure to polite ears, it was definitely not part of Literature (a word derived from the letters of the alphabet, and for more than 99 percent of the history of mankind nobody had any idea of what an alphabet was). The alphabet was invented, it is believed, by Phoenian merchants to help them keep records of their transactions and make more money. But it was soon taken up by priests and kings for codifying and making permanent the rituals of which they depended to keep their exalted position in the world. A distinction could then be made between the stories of old, unofficial gossip, disdained and disregarded, best left untalked about, like any other naturl function, while the written word told immortal tales in the voice of the immortal gods.
The books of Ruth and Esther in the Bible, for example, are based on two bits of gossip, neither of them very edifying by contemporary standards. The Book of Ruth is about a Moabitish woman who chose to stay on as a Hebrew among the Hebrews with the family of her dead husband instead of going back to her homeland in Moab, and is rewarded by getting a chance to snare a rich new husband and thus becoming the great-grandmother of King David. The Book of Esther is about a Jewish woman in the harem of the royal palace of Persia who is manipulated by her uncle to win the favor of King Ahasuerus and influence him to call off a scheduled pogrom of his Jewish subjects and authorize the slaughter 75,810 anti-Semites. These stories were accepted as part of Scripture only because they could be used for ecclesiastical propaganda, one in favor of tolerance, one for keeping the holy people separate.
Almost all early literature is concerned with gods and demigods and monsters, or with kings and queens and heroes who behave exactly like gods and demigods and monsters. It deals with vast events on a vast scale, full of wonders, never with the petty affairs of daily life unless they impinge somehow on the lives of the heroes.
Similarly, so-called folk-tales, which are generally believed to be the degenerate offspring of ancient myths and rituals, never have anything to say about the life of the folk. If a woodcutter appears, he never chops wood. If Cinderella has to scrub the floor, it is only because she is on her way to becoming a princess. Kings in folktales never do what real-life kings customarily do: German folklore is full of characters like kings Etzel and Dietrich von Bern, who historians tell us were really Attila the Hun and Theodoric the Ostrogoth of Verona, but they never make wars or sign treaties or proclaim laws or scoop up virgins the way the flesh-and-blood Attila and Theodoric were expected to do. Instead, they have marvelous adventures, slay dragons, fall asleep for hundreds of years in caves.
The literature about them was originally composed by members of an ecclesiastical caste, which as civilization advances is replaced or supplemented by a secular writing class, whose function is entertainment rather than official relations with the supernatural. While members of this class may not be quite as exalted as they would wish, they still operate on a superior level, and what they are expected to write about is never ordinary life. They write epic poetry and drama dealing with heroes from a distant past having fabulous adventures like Odysseus, committing monstrous crimes like Clytemnestra and Orestes, or founding future empires like Aeneas. These heroes have wives and children, whom they sometimes murder, but they have no family life. They are constantly making wars in which hundreds of thousands of casualties may occur, but there is no detailed description of anything that happens in these wars, except single combat between champions on each side, David and Goliath or Hector and Achilles. When Israel fights Amalek in the Sinai Desert, there is no strategy and no tactics, the results are determined by how long the aged Moses can hold up his arms. Homer's Greeks lay siege to Troy for ten years before finally finagling their way inside its walls, but nothing at all happens in those ten years except a few brawls and quarrels between aristocratic chieftains over the booty left over from a gang rape.
This is because literature in what are called heroic ages deals only with the select individuals who, like the writers themselves, live on a superior social plane. They alone speak because they alone have something to say. The common folk are on stage only to cheer them on or provide a carpet of corpses they can ride over..
It is said that the first literary expression that can be ascribed to the individual common man is to be found in graffiti scrawled by Greek mercenary soldiers on the walls of monuments while they were on service in Egypt twenty-five in hundred or so years ago. Greek mercenaries were in great demand at that time because of their superior armament and tactics, and it might be thought that the life of any one of them, battling and plundering his way around the colorful and sanguinary Mediterranean of the first millennium BC, would be just as interesting as any tale of Jason and the Golden Fleece. It is the kind of thing that would automatically make the best-seller lists today. Ernest Hemingway wrote a notable short story, Today is Friday, in which some privates in the Roman army of occupation in Palestine in the year 788 after the founding of Rome gossip about their recent unpleasant assignment to oversee to the crucifixion of a Jewish trouble-maker on the hill of Calvary in Jerusalem. How happy we would all be today if, say, the secretary of Pontius Pilate, having followed a course in the Roman equivalent of the Columbia School of Journalism, had chosen to record what they actually did say that Friday. But no classical author of any description, or any other author until very recent times, would have dreamed of recording the disorderly ungrammatical ramblings of private soldiers for any other purpose than to make fun of them or reprimand them: Thersites in the Iliad makes some familiar and very-convincing lower-class sound when he tells the assembled Greek leaders that they are killing a lot of poor men in an utterly senseless war, but Odysseus soon beats the nonsense out of him; little boys in Samaria taunt the prophet Elisha, but God immediately sends two bears to eat up 42 of them; foot soldiers in Shakespeare's Henry V complain in terms very much like those of modern GI's, but Henry soon whips them back to duty with blank verse grandiloquence.
. So the Roman soldiers remain silent and all we know of the Greek mercenaries are those few signatures they scratched on the tombs of kings. Kilroy was there, saving the sum of things for pay, but no one knows exactly how he did it or how he felt about it.
Poetry in Greece and Rome and in the Far East came in time to permit expression of individual unconventional emotions, like the Greek poet Archilocus who boasted of having thrown his shield away and saved his life by running away from the battlefield, or Catullus analyzing his mixed feelings about his love. It would have occurred to none of them to describe how they spent their time on a typical day, like Mr. Bloom's day in June 1906 in Dublin. They would have recognized parallels to their own lives in the patterns and routines that are current in modern fiction, but they would have seen no excuse for paying attention to them. That would have been gossip, and gossip was something that concerned only inferior orders like women who were by definition illiterate.
Some literary conventions did leave a little room for the inferior orders, for comic effect. There is a famous scene in the Idylls of Theocritus which has two women in the Alexandria of the third century BC chatting about the husband and servant problems in terms that were undoubtedly as current in Alexandria as they are in the modern cities:
GORGO: Is Praxinoa at home?
PRAXINOA: Gorgo dear! Such a long time! She is at home -- I'm surprised you got here even now. Eunoa, see to a chair for her, and put a cushion on it.
G: It's fine as it is.
P: Do sit down.
G: Poor soul that I am! I hardly got here alive, Praxinoa, in all that crowd and so many carriages - everywhere hobnailed boots and men in cloaks; and the road is never-ending -- you live farther and farther away.
P. That's that lunatic! He comes to the ends of the earth and buys a cave, not a house, so that we can't be neighbors -- out of spite, the mean brute; he's always the same!
G: Don't talk like that about your husband Dinon, my dear, when the little one is here. See how he's looking at you, woman. Never mind, Zopyion, sweet child, she doesn't mean daddy.
P: That daddy, the other day, really just the other day, I said to him: Papa, go and get some soda and rouge at the stall. And he brought me back salt, the great lumbering brute!
G: Mine's just like that too, he throws money away. Yesterday for seven drachmas he bought five fleeces of dog's hair, shavings off old saddle-bags, nothing but dirt. But come, put on your shawl and your wrap. Let's go and see Adonis in king Ptolemy's palace. I'm told the queen is preparing something fine.
P: Everything's grand in grand houses.
G: When you've seen a thing, you can talk about it to others who haven 't. It's time to be going.
P: It's always holiday for the idle. Eunoa, pick up that thread and bring it back here, or I'll beat you. Cats like soft beds to sleep on. Move, and bring me some water at once. I need water first, and she brings me soap! Never mind, let me have it. Not so much, you thief. Now the water. You wretch, what are you wetting my dress for? That will do.
[COMMENT1]Tell me, what did the material cost you?
P: Don't remind me of that Gorgo; more than two minas of good money, and as for the work!
G: But it's just what you wanted.
P: That's true. Bring me my wrap and my sun-hat; put them on properly. I shan't take you, baby. Let's be going. Phrygia, take the little one, and call the dog in, and lock the front door.
This kind of TV-sitcom prattle was as far as ancient authors ever went in dealing with ordinary domestic life. Their fiction in general dealt with either fantastic adventures in mythical kingdoms or with the graphic grapplings of shepherds and shepherdesses who never came near a sheep.
Gossip does manage to bubble up from time to time in serious settings, for there is no way of keeping the old girl permanently down, but is never allowed an independent existence. It always has to serve some higher purpose.
Take away the philosophy from Plato's Symposium and you are left with very lively bits of gossip about some rich young men in Athens having a night on the town. Plato was a consummate literary artist who could have written first-class realistic fiction if he had wanted to. He had more important things on his mind.
Outside of historians, who are professionally bound to some reliance on random fact, classical writers preferred standard timeless situations in which lower-class people were allowed to make fools of themselves in more or less hilarious ways. Here is Petronius Arbiter, a Roman aristocrat and friend of the emperor Nero, who set the standards of taste at the imperial court:
He was still chattering away when the servants came in with an immense hog on a tray almost the size of the table. We were, of course, astounded at the chef's speed and swore it would have taken longer to roast an ordinary chicken, all the more since the pig looked even bigger than the one served to us earlier. Meanwhile, Trimalchio had been scrutinizing the pig very closely and suddenly roared, "What! What's this? By god, this hog hasn't even been gutted! Get that cook here on the double!"
Looking very miserable, the poor cook came shuffling up to the table and admitted that he had forgotten to gut the pig.
"You forgot?" bellowed Trimalchio."You forgot to gut a pig? And I suppose you thought that's the same thing as merely forgetting to add salt and pepper. Strip that man!"
The cook was promptly stripped and stood there stark naked between two bodyguards, utterly forlorn. The guests to a man, however, interceded for the chef. "Accidents happen," they said, "please don't whip him. If he ever does it again, we promise we won't say a word for him." My own reaction was anger, savage and unrelenting. I could hardly contain myself and leaning over, I whispered to Agamemnon, "Did you ever hear of anything worse? Who could forget to gut a pig? By god, you wouldn't catch me letting him off, not if it was just a fish he'd forgotten to clean."
Not so Trimalchio, however. He sat there, a great grin widening across his face, and said: "Well, since your memory's so bad, you can gut the pig here in front of us all " The cook was handed back his clothes, drew out his knife with a shaking hand and then slashed at the pig's belly with crisscross cuts. The slits widened out under the pressure from inside, and suddenly out poured, not the pig's bowels and guts, but link upon link of tumbling sausages and blood puddings.
The slaves saluted the success of the hoax with a rousing, "Long live Gaius!" The vindicated chef was presented with a silver crown and honored by the offer of a drink served on a platter of fabulous Corinthian bronze.
It is perfectly possible that this is genuine gossip and some bloated rich upstart like Trimalchio actually put on a performance like this in Rome. Self-made millionaires have never been noted for good taste. On the other hand, there is something a little labored about Petronius's manner, he is a little too anxious to show off his superiority to the vulgarians he is talking about. He could laugh at the buffooneries of self-made ex-slaves like Trimalchio the way New York millionaires today can make fun of millionaires in Beverly Hills. He could approach real life near enough to show a real cook roasting a real pig. The idea of treating it as anything but a joke was beyond him..
ii. Gossip Redux
It is perhaps unfair to ancient literature to say that it was totally impervious to the gossip of daily life. We really know very little ancient literature. Not only was writing the monopoly of a privileged caste, but it was the most pedantic and conventional members of that caste who decided how much of it would survive. Priests preserved whatever they thought was seemly in whatever was written down in Egypt or in Israel. Schoolmasters decided, as the Roman empire declined and fell, and sources of parchment and of literate scribes dried up, which of the texts of classical Greece and Rome were worth the effort of recopying. Uncounted masterpieces have been utterly lost and it may be that some of them would have contained genuine stretches of what the ancient Egyptians and Greeks were actually talking about among themselves.
I doubt that there would be much, however. Gossip can be great fun, but part of its appeal is that it is irresponsible, what you say today does not bind you to what you will say or do tomorrow. In illiterate cultures today as in ancient Egypt and Greece, there is a distinct line between what is bandied around for the moment and what is considered worthy of being repeated. Hundreds of private letters have been found, reserved by the desert sands of Egypt, and they show that family life under the Ptolemies and the Romans revolved among much the same fads and feuds as it does today, but no professional writer would have had any interest in using such material.
Anglo-Saxon soldiers getting drunk on beer in the hall of the King of Northumbria might have plenty of lively things to say about the Mercian skulls they cracked in the last battle with the King of Mercia, or how many Mercian girls remained to be picked up and raped in local villages. When a professional minstrel came to entertain them, they didn't want to hear about that, they wanted stories about ancestors like Beowulf who a long time ago had slaughtered monsters in Denmark.
In the so-called Dark Ages of Europe, only the clergy wrote, and most of these were monks writing in scattered monasteries with no connection to academies such as had once regulated taste in Athens or Rome. Most of the monks' time was spent copying older writings. Precisely because they were cut off from the libraries and academies, on the rare occasions when they had something to write for themselves, like lives of their patron saints, they had little to go on but what they knew in their isolated local communities, and so almost in spite of themselves they became the precursors of realistic fiction. Lives of the saints are mostly full of standard miracles set off in some featureless other world. At times, however, having little knowledge of what was going on in the great world, the monks had no choice but to put in some objects and people they were familiar with, local scenes, what we call local color.
A typical story is the one that was told to pilgrims when they made their way to the great basilica of Conques in the hill country of southwestern France, over the tortuous route through the mountains which led to the shrine of Santiago de Campostella in Spain. The aim of the story was to explain how the bones of Saint Foy, patron of the establishment, came to be brought from the prosperous Roman city of Agen, site of her martyrdom, to the monastery of Conques far up in the barren trackless hills.. The saint herself, a young Gallo-Roman girl named Fides, or Faith, had been arrested by the Roman authorities when her Christian conscience would not let her worship the emperor as a god. They stripped her naked in the amphitheater, and a cloud came down from heaven to shield her from their dirty eyes. Nevertheless, they tortured her and killed her and cut off her head. Her bones, piously collected by her fellow Christians were preserved in a shrine at a monastery in Agen, and there they soon began to work miracles. Over succeeding centuries, the lame and the blind and sufferers of all sorts flocked to the shrine, and their offerings made the monastery one of the richest in all Gaul.
A hundred miles or so away in the mountains, at Conques, there was another monastery, perched on a little ledge overlooking a savage ravine, and here the monks lived poorly in makeshift buildings with few visitors and little fame. They studied the situation carefully and groomed one of their more promising novices, whom they sent to Agen to enter the monastery there. He was soon marked out for his piety and zeal, and performed all the tasks assigned him with such modest and uncomplaining efficiency that he was rewarded by being made custodian of the bones of St. Foy.
That very night he put the bones in a sack and when everyone else was asleep, he climbed the wall and took off for the mountains. Search parties were not fast enough to catch up with him, and he made it safely back to Conques. The bones were put in a new shrine, and began working miracles on a scale which attracted pilgrims in ever-increasing numbers to the desolate ledge and eventually made it one of the greatest religious and cultural centers of medieval Christendom. Over the shrine enclosing the little girl's bones was built a noble and richly decorated church which is cherished as one of the glories of Romanesque art.
Modern readers coming upon this story for the first time are apt to think that it was a piece of malicious gossip put out by enemies of the monks of Conques and meant to discredit their monastery. In the 9th century, when the bones were said to have made their journey, there was a different way of looking at things. Ages of Faith are in many respects far more materialistic than Ages of Reason like our own, and for the practical minds of 9th-century monks it was clear that St. Foy had actively supported the whole operation. If she had not wanted her bones in Conques she would have struck the young man dead when he touched them. But look at all the valuable objects brought by pilgrims which began crowding the monastery, visible evidence Saint Foy was pleased with what had been done. The story was enthusiastically repeated to all comers, and still appears in the official guidebook to the splendid monument, without a word to suggest that it was anything but a record of sanctity in action.
The monks of Conques wanted a statue of St. Foy worthy of her glory and the glory of the basilica they had built around her bones. They had a carpenter among them who could shape a roughly rectangular body for her out of wood. But there was no one in that time and place who could make anything resembling a human head well enough to impress the worshipers. They searched around, and found one of the marble heads of Roman officials that were still lying among ancient ruins. It had great staring eyes and a jutting Mussoliniesque chin, it might have been a Roman emperor of the last period. They put the head on the body, covered both with jewels, and created one of the unforgettable works of medieval art.
Just so, lacking any of the traditional rhetorical devices which had been worked out by the classical schools, the only way they knew how to write about their Saint was to gossip about her, tell the story of what was called the Translation of the Bones in the same matter-of-fact way they told the story of the wicked knight who tried to rob the monastery and was promptly thrown off his horse by unseen hands, broke his head and was dragged down to hell.
It was a manner of story-telling that had no aspirations to literature, but had its own dignity and certainly its own popular appeal. By the time we get to the late Middle Ages, there is an unmistakable air of freedom in the literary air. Writers are writing less in schoolbook Latin and more in the national vernaculars, closer to the language in which people gossiped in the market place. The morality plays in which Adam and Eve, or the shepherds at the Nativity, joke and quarrel like the families and shepherds of French and English villages indicate a willingness to listen to everyday speech, copy its locutions and its rhythms, and above all, to take the people who use it seriously. They are not thrown in simply for comic relief.
Dame Gossip's voice is at last entering the public domain. She is still there in a subordinate capacity. She is an attendant to the sacred drama, part of the church's educational program to bring to the people the significance of the Fall of Man or the birth of Christ in Bethlehem.
I believe that the first large-scale attempt to use the techniques of gossip independently, for purely literary purposes - for entertainment rather than instruction - can be found at the very edge of the known world, Iceland, in the 12th and 13th centuries. It was then that most of the Icelandic sagas were written, though the original stories on which they had been based had surely been circulating by word of mouth for years or generations.
Iceland, the Thule of the ancients, the last outpost of the world, has always been a nurturing home for gossip. There is not much else to do in the long night that lasts all winter. The medieval Icelanders had particularly rich subject matter to occupy them. Their forefathers had come to this land only a few generations earlier, having built better boats and braved more dangerous seas than anyone in the previous history of mankind. They had grown rich on sheep-herding and on piracy, they went off on yearly plundering expeditions that might take them as far as Estonia or Constantinople, and so they had had a chance to see a great deal of the world.
"Saga" means simply something said. What they had to say to each other in those endless nights was partly ancient mythology, tales of gods and heroes like Odin and Sigurd the Volsung (who would later appear in caricatural form as Wotan and Siegfried in the Wagner operas), partly semi-reliable chronicles of the kings of Norway. These accounts are derived from very formalized verses in which everything is said and done in very traditional ways, but by the time they have been talked over for a couple of hundred years in Iceland, something of the living language breaks through. Here for instance is the reply of King Eystein, engaged in a traditional boasting match with his brother King Sigurd Jerusalemfarer, who has been away crusading and performing mighty feats on the banks of the Jordan while his brother sat quietly back home in Norway:
It is but little I have to set up against this. I have heard that you had several battles abroad, but it was more useful for the country what I was doing in the meantime here at home. In the north at Vaage I built fish-houses, so that all the poor people could earn a livelihood, and support themselves. I built there a priest's house, and endowed a church, where before all the people almost were heathen; and on this account I think all these people will remember that Eystein had been king in Norway The road from Drontheim goes over the Dovrefjelds, and many people had to sleep out of doors, and made a very severe journey; but I built hospices, and supported them with money; and all travelers know that Eystein has been king in Norway. Out at Agdaness was a barren waste, and no harbor, and many a ship was lost there; and now there is a good harbor and ship-station, and a church also built there. There I raised beacons on all the high fields, of which all the people in the interior enjoy the benefit....Now though all this that I have reckoned up be but small doings, yet I am not sure if the people of the country have not been better served by it than by your killing blue [Old Norse for some reason had no word for black] men in the land of the Saracens and sending them to hell.
There may be a kernel of historic truth in this slanging match, but it is as much a literary composition as any Greek drama. Yet it is entirely different from Greek drama. We cannot imagine Agamemnon and Menelaus, who were also kingly brothers, talking like this about building huts for fishermen when they had so many royal murders rapes and incests to talk about. In the distant barbarian North we have somehow come closer to our everyday world.
The most popular, and powerful,.of the sagas are the so-called family sagas, which are supposed to be the stories of the great-great-grandparents of the story tellers, in the heroic years following the first settlements in Iceland. They are written in a style so clear and simple and straightforward that modern readers coming to them for the first time are almost always convinced that they are literal eyewitness accounts of what their authors saw and heard in the great days of the Vikings. Modern Icelanders, who all feel sure they are personally descended from the saga heroes (though there is a gap of several centuries in the genealogical records) are firmly convinced of the historical accuracy of their stories, and will take you to see the very spot where Njal Thorgeirsson and his family were burned to death, and where Gunnar Hamondson, warned that his enemies were closing in on him, stopped on his way to the ship that was ready to take him away to safety abroad and looked out over his land and found it "so fair that it has never seemed to me so fair," and stayed home and was killed.
Open a family saga almost anywhere, and you will come across a passage like this, near the beginning of the Njalsaga, or Saga of Burnt Njal:
Hoskuld told his daughter Hallgerd about the marriage deal. She said, "Now I have proof of what I have suspected for a long time: you do not love me as much as you have always said you do, since you did not think it worth while to ask me about this before hand. Besides, this is not as good a marriage as you have promised me." It was obvious that she thought she was marrying beneath her. "Your pride", said Hoskuld, "is not of such concern to me that I would let it interfere with any arrangements I make. I, and not you, will make the decisions whenever we differ." "Pride", said Hallgerd "is a thing you and your kinsmen have in plenty, so it is not surprising if I have some too."
The narrative goes on in this down-to-earth tone, as Hallgerd goes on to marry and murder her father's choice of a husband, and then a second one. She marries a third, Gunnar Hamondson, and the day comes when he is fighting off a whole army of foes who are attacking his home, keeping them at bay with his bow and arrows. His bowstring is cut, and he asks Hallgerd to cut off two locks of her long golden hair, which flows below her knees, so that she and his mother can twist a new string out of it.
"Does anything depend on it?" asked Hallgerd.
"My life depends on it", said Gunnar, "for they will never overcome me if I use my bow".
"In that case", said Hallgerd, "I shall now remind you of the slap you once gave me. I do not care in the least whether you hold out a long time or not."
"To each his own way of earning fame", said Gunnar. "You will not be asked again".
He goes on fighting with his axe against his assailants, wounding eight of them, but in the end weight of numbers kills him.
It is the kind of fierce fight and noble death associated with heroes since mankind first began to admire heroes. What is new and unusual in the Icelandic tales is that Hoskuld and Gunnar and all the other characters who turn up as the drama unfolds are not demigods or kings of Mycenae. They are hard‑working farmers, who may moonlight periodically as pirates, but who spend most of their time building fences and bringing in the hay. Yet the saga treats them and all the round of their daily lives with complete seriousness.
The author of this as of other sagas makes a great point of providing detailed genealogies for his characters and having them participate in well-known historical events like the adoption of Christianity in Iceland in 1000 (the only country in which it was ever done by popular vote) and the battle of Clontarf in Ireland. Spoilsport scholars have demonstrated pretty convincingly that the story of Gunnar and Hallgerd, like all the other stories in the family sagas are not really family tales transmitted intact from generation to generation. They are historical fiction, based partly on more or less genuine family traditions but mostly created by the saga writers themselves out of their own personal experiences, or their miscellaneous reading in the books that were imported into Iceland. In the saga of Eric the Red, the Norsemen who have just discovered America around the year 1000 run into a one-legged creature, a uniped, which has popped straight out of the pages of the Encyclopedia of the 6th century Spanish Bishop Isidore of Seville, a best-seller through most of the Middle Ages.
So many miraculous elements borrowed from old books appear in the stories of Eric the Red and his son Leif the Lucky that some of those spoilsports concluded that they were all idle romances, that Eric had never discovered Greenland or Leif North America. The discovery of Eric's farmhouse in Greenland, with a chapel set off at an uncomfortable distance just as the saga says the old heathen did to keep his wife from bothering him with her everlasting pious talk, and the discovery of Norse remains in Newfoundland indicate at least that the saga-writers had real people in mind.
As for the Icelanders who listened to the stories, hour after hour, week after week, sipping what they could get in the way of liquor, they were hardly concerned with academic accuracy. Life was hard in the 13th century in Iceland which was entering a period of long decline, with old institutions breaking down in an atmosphere of random violence. People responded readily to the possibly inaccurate but very relevant stories of, say, Egil Skallagrimsson from the days when, at the age of six, he buried an axe in the skull of a ten-year-old boy who had treated him roughly in a ball-game, to the day when, grown old and impotent, bullied by maidservants, he put all the gold he had plundered in his lifetime into a sack and had to be forcibly restrained from taking it to Thingvellir, where the Icelandic parliament was meeting, and scattering it among the crowds so that he could see one last bloody battle before he died.
One of the things most often cited as an example of how the sagas are not be trusted is the story of the priest who dug up Egil's skull 150 years after his death and swung an axe at it but failed to dent it. Now comes the Scientific American (January 1995) to tell us that the thickness and hardness of the skull, and the scalloped ridges on top of it, as well as various characteristics of Egil's unbalanced and violent behavior, are all characteristic of the scientifically respectable Paget's Disease, symptoms of which have been found in Egyptian skulls three thousand years old. It can be unwise to sell Dame Gossip short.
The population of Iceland sank to a few thousand at one point, in the "little Ice Age" of the 17th and 18th centuries, and there was talk of transporting the lot of them to Denmark. What held them together, they all say, was reading the magnificent gossip about Egil Skallagrimsson and their other ancestors. The day of most rejoicing in the recent history of the republic was the one when a Danish cruiser brought back the collection of saga manuscripts which had been carried off to Copenhagen long ago. It was surely one of Dame Gossip's finest hours.
The Icelandic sagas did not have any effect on European literature till they began to be printed from old manuscripts in the 19th century. The general change of they represented, however, must have been widespread, because a similar shift from formal literary patterns to looser gossipy structures can be observed increasingly on the continent toward the end of the Middle Ages. Boccaccio's Decameron may be a turning point in world literature. Here is a collection of piquant, often scabrous, bits of gossip, not about Hebrew kings or barbarian chieftains, but about more or less anonymous Italians: gullible husbands, sex-starved hermits, dishonest tradesmen, nymphomaniac housewives, quite ordinary civilians, getting their way into and sometimes out of the ordinary scrapes of ordinary life. There had been plenty of such collections before, ragtag collections of what could be heard wherever people gathered; the Arabian Nights was such a collection. This time the stories were told with self-conscious art. Boccaccio found it natural to treat his commonplace characters and their disreputable acts with the elegance of style and psychological finesse that Dante brought to more serious themes like sin and redemption.
Boccaccio on his death-bed repented of having written the Decameron, just as Chaucer would repent of having written the equally scabrous Canterbury Tales, but the world had taken their message to heart. Gossip had found its way into the respectable world of belles lettres.
Europe, and later the Europeanized two-thirds of the world has been getting richer, and, in its own opinion at any rate, more enlightened almost steadily year by year, certainly century by century. A sign of both is the spread of literacy to increasing levels of the population. One consequence is that literature is no longer a public art, designed to be declaimed on the stage, or from the pulpit, or before groups of admiring friends. It can be a private affair. Books could now be bought at a price within the reach of paupers, and they could be read in the privacy of the home, and every man (even on occasion woman) had free choice of the book to be picked off the shelves. It is possible for a man like Montaigne, though he was mayor of Bordeaux and had numerous important political missions to carry out, to spend a good part of his life alone in his study, noting down his own reflections on what he has seen and what he has read; gossiping with himself..
Another consequence of the new social order is that people who in previous cultures would not have known how to hold a pen can now write letters or keep diaries with no regard for the current rules of rhetoric. Petronius's Trimalchio would never bother to learn how to sign his own name. In 17th century London a young man named Samuel Pepys, who is going to make a distinguished and profitable career in government service but who starts off as an impecunious easily bribable civil servant of a low rank can jot down the events of each day as it passes by, events like the Great Fire of London, where he sees everything including "the poor pigeons, loth to leave their homes, but hovered about the windows and balconys till they were, some of them burned, some broke their wings, and fell down" or great events of state:
22d. To the 'Change, and there, being among the merchants, I hear fully the news of our being beaten to dirt at Guinny by De Ruyter with his fleete; it being most wholly to the utter ruin of our Royall Company, and reproach and shame to the whole nation
or little events like:
19th. Going to bed betimes last night we waked betimes, and from our people's being forced to take the key to go out to light a candle, I was very angry and began to find fault with my wife for not commanding her servants as she ought. Thereupon she giving me some cross answer I did strike her over her left eye such a blow as the poor wretch did cry out and was in great pain, but yet her spirit was such as to endeavour to bite and scratch me. But I coying with her made her leave crying, and sent for butter and parsley, and friends presently one with another, and I up, vexed at my heart to think what I had done, for she was forced to lay a poultice or something to her eye all day, and is black, and the people of the house observed it. But I was forced to rise, and up with Sir J. Minnes to White Hall, and there we waited on the Duke. Thence to the 'Change and there walked up and down, and then home. After going up to my wife (whose eye is very bad, but she is in very good temper to me), and after dinner, I to the 'Change, and there found Bagwell's wife waiting for me and took her away, and to an alehouse, and there I made much of her. Then away and I to the office. Thence to supper with my wife, very pleasant, and then a little to my office and to bed.
20th. Up and walked to Deptford, where after doing something at the yard without being observed, with Bagwell home to his house, and there was very kindly used, and the poor people did get a dinner for me in their fashion, of which I also eat very well. After dinner I found occasion of sending him abroad and then alone avec elle. By and by he coming back again I took leave and walked home.
all of it adding up to a mass of gossip which is now assigned reading in courses on English literature.
As the centuries go by, there is more and more of this kind of private gossip by letter-writers like Madame de Sévigné and Fanny Burney, diarists like John Evelyn, collectors of scabrous anecdotes like the Seigneur de Brantôme, all prize pupils of Dame Gossip.
The enlarged world thus opened up to literature is evoked with the eloquence and enthusiasm, and incoherence, of the true gossip, by the 17th-century antiquary John Aubrey in a letter to his friend Anthony à Wood:
I have put in writing these minutes and lives, tumultuously as they occurred to my thoughts; or as, occasionally, I had information of them... 'Tis a task that I never thought to have undertaken, till you imposed it upon me, saying that I was fit for it by reason of my general acquaintance, having now not only lived over half a century of years in the court, but have also been much tumbled up and down in it; which has made me well-known: besides the modern advantage of coffee-houses in this great city: before which men knew not how to be acquainted, but with their own relations, or societies. ..I here lay down to you (out of the conjunct friendship between us) the truth, the naked and plain truth: which is here exposed so bare, that the very pudenda are not covered, and afford many passages that would raise a blush on a young virgin's cheek...What uncertainty do we find in printed histories: they are either treading too near on the heel of truth, that they dare not speak plain: or else for want of intelligence (things being antiquated) become too obscure and dark. I do not here repeat anything already published (to the best of my remembrance) and I fancy myself all along discoursing with you...So that you make me to renew my acquaintance with my old and deceased friends, and to rejuvenesce (as it were) which is the pleasure of old men. 'Tis pity that such minutes had not been taken 100 years since or more: for want whereof many worthy men's names and inventions are swallowed up in oblivion...I remember one saying of General Lambert's, 'That the best men are but men at the best,' of this you will meet with divers examples in this rude and hasty collection.
Aubrey practiced what he preached. Here he is, in his Brief Lives.
describing the last hours of Francis Bacon, Lord St. Albans:
Mr Hobbes told me that the cause of his lordship's death was trying of an experiment: viz., as he was taking the air in a coach with Dr Witherborn, (a Scotchman, physician to the king) towards Highgate, snow lay on the ground, and it came into my lord's thoughts, why flesh might not be preserved in snow, as in salt. They were resolved they would try the experiment presently. They alighted out of the coach, and went into a poor woman's house at the bottom of Highgate Hill, and bought a hen, and made the woman exenterate [gut] it, and then stuffed the body with snow, and my lord did help to do it himself. The snow so chilled him that he immediately fell so extremely ill, that he could not return to his lodgings (I suppose at Gray's Inn), but went to the Earl of Arundel's house at Highgate, where they put him into a good bed warmed with a pan, but it was a damp bed that had not been lain-in in about a year before, which gave him such a cold that in two or three days, as I remember he [Mr Hobbes] told me, he died of suffocation.
Bacon was of course a very famous man, the founder of modern scientific method, and it would be possible to read into this incident an ironic comment on scientific method. One of the great preachers of the Middle Ages might have described a similar episode in greater and grimmer detail as an example of the vanity of human wishes and a call for repentance. For Aubrey, there is no question of philosophy or religion involved. All he wants to do is to tell his friend, or any other friends who come along, about a man, a man at the best.
He would write with the same random all-inclusive zest about Bacon and Shakespeare and Dr. William Butler who
never took the degree of Doctor, though he was the greatest physician of his time...
A gentleman lying a-dying, sent his servant with a horse for the doctor. The horse being exceeding dry, ducks down his head strongly into the water, and plucks down the doctor over his head, who was plunged in the water over head and ears. The doctor was madded, and would return home. The man swore he shoud not: drew his sword, and gave him ever and anon (when he would return) a little prick, and so drove him before him....
The doctor, lying at the Savoy in London, where was a balcony looked into the Thames, a patient came to him that was grievously tormented with the ague. The doctor orders a boat to be in readiness under his window, and discoursed with the patient (a gentleman) in the balcony, when on a signal given, two or three lusty fellows came behind the gentleman and threw him a matter of 20 feet into the Thames. This surprise absolutely cured him...
Another time one came to him for the cure of a cancer (or ulcer) in the bowels. Said the doctor, 'Can ye shit?' 'Yes,' said the patient. So the doctor ordered a bason for him to shit, when he had so done, the doctor commanded him to eat it up. This did the cure.
So many of the recurring themes of Dame Gossip's repertory are scattered
through Aubrey's miscellaneous notes. There is the desire to set the record straight:
About nine or ten years ago, Mr Hooke wrote to Mr Isaac Newton of Trinity College, Cambridge, to make a demonstration of this theory (of gravity), not telling him, at first, the proportion of the gravity to the distance, nor what was the curved line that was thereby made. Mr Newton, in his answer to this letter, did express that he had not known of it; and, in his first attempt about it, he calculated the carve by supposing the attraction to be the same at all distances: upon which, Mr Hooke sent, in his next letter, the whole of his hypothesis, that is, that the gravitation was reciprocal to the square of the distance...which is the whole celestial theory, concerning which Mr Newton has a demonstration, not at all owning he received the first intimation of it from Mr Hooke
And there is the desire to throw up the good old days against the degenerate
T.T. an old gentleman that remembers Queen Elizabeth's reign, has seen much in his time both at home and abroad: and with much choler inveighs against things now: 'Alas! O'God's will! Nowadays everyone, forsooth! must have carriages, forsooth! In those days gentlemen kept horses for a man at arms besides their hackney and hunting horses. This made the gentry robust and hardy and fit for service: were able to be their own guides in case of a rout or so, when occasion should so require. Our gentry forsooth in these days are so effeminated that they know not how to ride on horseback. -- Then when the gentry met, it was not at poor blind sordid ale-house, to drink up a barrel of drink and lie drunk there two or three days together: fall together by their ears. They met then in the fields, well-appointed, with their hounds or their hawks: kept up hospitality...Then the elders and better sort of the parish sat and beheld the pastimes of the young men, as wrestling, shooting at butts bowling and dancing. All this is now lost: and pride, whoring, wantonness, and drunkenness.'
This may not seem, strictly speaking, like gossip, which is concerned
exclusively with the up-to-date, but remember that the golden days of the past are
always being recreated at the present moment in the memories of old-timers, so
that Mr. T.T.'s laments, to those hearing them for the first time, must have seemed just as timely as Aubrey's account of Thomas Goffe the poet and preacher:
His wife pretended to fall in love with him, by hearing of him preach: upon which said one Thomas Thimble (one of the esquire beadles in Oxford and his confidant) to him: "Do not marry her: if thou dost, she will break thy heart." He was not obsequious to his friend's sober advice, but for her sake altered his condition, and cast anchor here. One time some of his Oxford friends made a visit to him: she looked upon them with an ill eye, as if they had come to eat her out of her house and home (as they say): she provided a dish of milk and some eggs for supper, and nothing more. They perceived her niggardliness, and that her husband was inwardly troubled at it, (she wearing the breeches) so they were resolved to be merry at supper, and talk in Latin, that she could not hold, but fell a-weeping, and rose from the table. The next day, Mr Goffe ordered a better dinner for them, and sent for some wine. 'Twas no long time before this Xantippe [the shrewish wife of Socrates who was said by Athenian gossips to have taught him the art of contradiction] made Mr Thimble's prediction good: and when he died the last words he spoke were "Oracle, oracle, Tom Thimble," and so he gave up the ghost.
A special place in Dame Gossip's heart must be reserved for the man who may be called the greatest gossip of all time, Louis de Rouvray, Duc de Saint Simon, who lived at Versailles through the last years of the reign of Louis XIV and well on into the 18th century.
Saint Simon was careful not to publish anything in his lifetime, he probably would have ended his days in a dungeon if he had, but he wrote as if he was writing for posterity, not to win any literary prizes but to give it a true picture of his time. His picture is all the more lifelike for being quite narrow, it is restricted to people of his own class and casts only a few sidelights on the wars and religious controversies and the creation of a modern bureaucratic state which, for the conventional historian, make up most of the substance of those years. Saint Simon had little of value to say about affairs of state because Louis XIV built Versailles specifically to keep the brawling irresponsible hereditary aristocracy, of which Saint Simon was a very haughty member though his dukedom went back only one generation, from having anything to do with running the country. He achieved this goal by packing them, the whole upper class of France, into the miles of rooms that formed his chateau of Versailles, where they could play and dance and flirt and fornicate and drink and gamble to their hearts' content when they were not being sent off to be killed in the king's various wars. If ever there was a greenhouse built for the flourishing of gossip, this was it:
It was an ingrown inward-looking community, like any small town in Eudora Welty's Mississippi, where everybody not only knew everybody else but knew exactly what everybody else was doing. There were no corridors in Versailles, only rooms: to reach the bedroom of his new mistress the Marquise de Montespan the King had to pass through the bedroom of his old mistress Mlle. de la Vallière. Back and forth through these rooms the lords and ladies in their perruques and high heels milled continuously, backbiting, back-scratching, intriguing, squabbling over points of etiquette and count ritual ‑‑ who would pass the royal nightshirt over the naked shoulders of majesty when majesty rose in the morning? -- as they made their daily rounds of all-too-human behavior, fawning on each other, snubbing each other, climbing in and out of each other's beds, angling for a nod or a smile or a hat raised a fraction more than usual which would be a sign of royal favor. In the middle of it all was the little Duke, bobbing around on the highest pair of heels at court, taking it all in and writing it all down, everything he saw or heard, every day for forty years.
Though he has had his defenders, Saint Simon appears to have been an insignificant little fellow, the kind of man of whom the Irish say, if he was a horse no one would buy him. "No one pays any attention to him", wrote the Prussian ambassador. He was vain, vengeful, narrow‑minded and impossibly snobbish, full of violent prejudices, notably against the King because the King preferred, quite sensibly, to turn to commoners rather than dukes to manage his affairs.
But Saint Simon had also the sharp eye and taste for dramatic color that mark the expert gossip, and he was one of the great masters of French prose. It was a time when French literature had reached almost the outer limits of formality, when every syllable and every phrase had to be weighed and measured for felicitous effect according to an elaborate and rigid set of rules. Saint Simon was a very conscientious writer who worked hard at his sentences and often rewrote them several times, but he was unaware of any rules. He wanted to give the effect of life passing by in all its quickness, color, vitality. He boasted of paying no attention to grammar and syntax, he wanted the pell‑mell rush of what he saw going on around him. He invented his own racy style, inventing words when he needed to (he is said to have coined the words patriote and publicité}. And it all comes out so lively and direct ‑‑ so gossipy ‑‑ that the court of Louis XIV is better known, in the details of its daily operations and in overall tone, than any similar body of people in history. Editors have shown that he often got his facts wrong, and his interpretations even more so, but from the moment we dip into his memoirs we have no doubt that if we were to be transported to the Sun King's Versailles we would feel perfectly at home there.
Everything goes down in the ramshackle order of real life: war, politics, religion, intrigue, money, sex, disease, death, ambition, lawsuits, slander, digestive upsets. He swings from subject to subject as the wind of Versailles gossip blows him. Now a great battle is being fought in Flanders, and he hears all about the disgraceful bickering of the French generals trying to put the blame on each other as their army disintegrates. In the next breath he is telling the merry story of M. de Roquelaure, bribed by the offer of a dukedom to marry one of the king's girlfriends. Almost immediately a daughter is born and the new duke greets her with the words, "Bonjour mademoiselle, I hadn't expected you quite so soon".
The Saint Simon eye is everywhere. He is present at the moment when the Duchess of Orleans, proud of her immemorially noble German ancestry, gives her son a resounding smack in the face for letting himself be bribed and bullied into marrying one of the king's bastard daughters. He is around to note that in one year Mme de Puisieux, while standing and fretting her way through the endless hours of court ceremonial etiquette, has chewed up 100,000 crowns worth of fine Genoese lace in the shawl she wears around her neck and shoulders.
He keeps a sharp lookout of people like the Princess d'Harcourt who has become a great favorite of the king's second wife, Mme de Maintenon, "for unpleasant reasons" (Mme de Maintenon had been at one time the mistress of her father). This princess he describes as "a gross vulgar bustling creature with a skin the color of putty, thick blubber lips and hair like tow, perpetually falling down like all the rest of her soiled and filthy attire." She also cheated at cards. One night the young Duc de Bourgogne, the king's grandson, and his bubbly little wife crept into her bedroom and pelted her with snowballs. "The dreadful old creature woke up with a bound, all crumpled, furious and gasping for breath, with snow in her ears, her hair unfastened, screaming her head off, and wriggling like an eel to find some means of escape. The scene kept them amused for more than half an hour, until the nymph was awash in her bed, with water everywhere and a flood on the floor. Next day, she sulked.".
The Duchess of Bourgogne, bored to distraction by her dull pious husband, falls in love with the chevalier de Nangis. He is delighted to be involved with a girl who is scheduled to be one day Queen of France, but he is already in love with one of her ladies in waiting, Mlle. de la Virillière, who threatens to create a scene, and makes everyone nervous. Enter the Comte de Mauleuvrier who falls madly in love with the Duchess. He pretends to be consumptive and to have lost his voice, which allows him to keep out of the army and to be able to speak to his idol in passionate whispers out of everyone's hearing. She is pleased enough to have another handsome admirer until the day he whispers to her that if she doesn't send Nangis packing he will go to the king and tell him all. The king is notorious for disapproving all royal adulteries except his own, and is capable of blasting the reputations and ruining the lives of all concerned. There is general panic throughout the Bourgogne household until Mauleuvrier's father, the wise old Comte de Tessé, who has just been appointed ambassador to Spain, convinces the king's doctor to tell Mauleuvrier the French climate is killing him and order him to go off to some warmer place like Madrid. So Mauleuvrier departs, eventually he commits suicide, and everyone in the Duchess's little circle, which includes Saint Simon and his wife, can breathe easily again.
Great events appear as distant noises in the background. Disaster follows disaster in the war. The peasants starve, the enemy is crossing the frontier. But the king insists that everyone be gay and smiling; the balls must go on, the card games must begin again a few hours after the death of the king's brother.
With his broad‑minded aristocratic insouciance, Saint Simon could take in his stride episodes that the plebeian practitioners of the art of gossip in our own day, the Walter Winchells and Kitty Kellys would suppress in the name of good taste. In one passage he describes the mission of a bishop sent by the prince of Parma to negotiate with the Marshal Duke de Vendome, the king's cousin and commander of the French armies in Italy, who prides himself of observing the rude simple manners of the ancient Romans. The bishop was so shocked at "being received by the Marshal on his chaise percée [the 17th century equivalent of our toilet bowl], and more distressed still when his host got up, turned his back and wiped himself," that he tucked up his skirts and ran back to Parma. The Prince then dispatched a young priest named Alberoni to Vendome's headquarters, where he was received in the same manner as the bishop. "When Alberoni saw the exposed portions of Vendome's anatomy turned towards him, he cried O culo di Angelo! [oh angelic ass], and kissed them". Vendome was delighted with this ancient Roman attitude and later had Alberoni join his staff, starting him on the career that would make him a cardinal, foreign minister of Spain and one of the leading statesmen of his age.
The fame gained by writers like Saint Simon should not blind us to the fact that overt gossip ‑‑ gossip that dares to tell its name, as opposed to gossip disguised as history or moral precept ‑‑ is extremely rare in world literature up to the last couple of centuries of western civilization. One reason is that, in strongly hierarchical societies, meaning ninety‑nine percent of all societies, gossip about little people is simply not deemed worthy of the effort involved in putting it down on paper. And gossip about big people always carries an element of danger with it, and prudent practitioners of the art in olden days preferred to leave it unrecorded. Suetonius wrote his scandalous stories about the private lives of Caesars who were safely dead. Procopius and Saint Simon kept their manuscripts well out of the sight of Justinian and Louis XIV, and they were only to be published when monarchs and gossipers alike were in their graves.
Literacy and liberty, the twin genii of modern times, have changed all that. Beginning about the time of Saint Simon's death, in the middle of the 18th century, gossip has been able to come out of the closet and cavort in full view of the world. Diarists, letter writers, pamphleteers, journalists have all followed the little duke's model and tried to capture every detail of the life around them.
Many of them have created enduring literary monuments.
Everybody's favorites must include James Boswell's London Journals, in which events go by with the cheerful irrelevance and unpredictability of real life or good gossip.
I open at random to Saturday 1 January 1763, and he is reporting snatches of conversation he overheard at a café:
1 CITIZEN. Pray, Sir, have you read Mr. Wharton's Essay on the Life and Writings of Pope? He will not allow him to be a poet. He says he had good sense and good versification, but wants the warm imagination and brilliancy of expression that constitute the true poetical genius. He tries him by a rule prescribed by Longinus, which is to take the words out of their metrical order and then see if they have sparks of poetry. Don't you remember this?
2 CITIZEN. I don't agree with him.
1 CITIZEN. Nor I, neither. He is fond of Thomson. He says he has great force.
2 CITIZEN. He has great faults.
1 CITIZEN. Ay, but great force, too.
2 CITIZEN. I have eat beefsteaks with him.
1 CITIZEN. So have I.
I received for a suit of old clothes 11s.,which came to me in good time. I went to Louisa at once. "Madam, I have been thinking seriously." "Well, Sir, I hope you are of my way of thinking." "I hope, Madam, you are of mine. I have considered this matter most seriously. The week is now elapsed, and I hope you will not be so cruel as to keep me in misery." (I then began to take some liberties.) "Nay, Sir -- now -- but do consider -" "Ah, Madam!" "Nay, but you are an encroaching creature!" (Upon this I advanced to the greatest freedom by a sweet elevation of the charming petticoat.) "Good heaven, Sir!" "Madam, I cannot help it. I adore you. Do you like me?" (She answered me with a warm kiss, and pressing me to her bosom, sighed, "O Mr. Boswell!") "But my dear Madam! Permit me, I beseech you." "Lord, Sir, the people may come in." "How then can I be happy? What time? Do tell me." "Why, Sir, on Sunday afternoon my landlady, of whom I am most afraid, goes to church, so you may come here a little after three." "Madam I thank you a thousand times." "Now, Sir, I have but one favor to ask of you. Whenever you cease to regard me, pray don't use me ill, nor treat me coldly. But inform me by a letter or any other way that it is over." "Pray, Madam, don't talk of such a thing. Indeed, we cannot answer for our affections. But you may depend on my behaving with civility and politeness."
I drank tea at Lady Betty's.
The incidents in Saint Simon and Boswell, in which the same people keep recurring in different circumstances read very much like scenes from a novel, and in fact if given fictitious names all these people might be characters in novels. They fill all the requirements, they are genuine flesh and blood, and you are always waiting to see what they will do next. When fictitious characters began to take walks on 'Change and pay visits to actresses like Louisa, Dame Gossip was able to make a giant step forward. She was about to enter her Golden Age.
iii. The Golden Age of Gossip
It took prose writers of fiction several centuries to get beyond Boccaccio and realize that the techniques of gossip could be expanded beyond a string of lively anecdotes to a long unified narrative exploring the ins and outs and ups and downs of human experience, in other words, the novel.
There are plenty of candidates for the honor of being the first novel. Robinson Crusoe is as good a candidate as any. It is the story, as everyone in the world knows, of a rather ordinary person, someone you might meet casually in a tavern, who gets to talking about some things that have happened to him, and in this case they turn out to be quite unusual things. There are plenty of features which make the book fascinating, the exotic locale, the ingenuity of the chief character in facing extraordinary circumstances, all kinds of historical and philosophical overtones, side-lights on colonial expansion, and on race relations. What holds them all together is the tone, which will be the tone of the successful novel for the next two centuries, the tone of someone taking the reader into his confidence. The novelist is always sitting across the table, conversing, not thundering from a pulpit or warbling from above the clouds. In Conrad's Lord Jim he is speaking "on a verandah draped in motionless foliage and crowned with flowers, in the deep dusk speckled by fiery cigar-ends," talking on and on for several hundred pages. A Conrad novel is going to have many levels of complexity, but like Defoe, Conrad depends on his reader to accept him as a temporary god-sib, someone who has something to share which it will be a pleasure to hear..
Once launched, the novel developed at a speed which no other literary form has ever approached. Almost immediately, novelists learned that they did not need to depend on exotic locales like Robinson Crusoe's island, they could move indoors into Clarissa Harlowe's bedroom or ride out with Squire Allworthy's fox-hunt, they could sail the seven sees with Smollett or visit a mad scientist's laboratory with Mary Shelley, they could go anywhere they pleased with whatever companions pleased them.
Growing up in the tolerant commonsensical atmosphere of English Whiggery (what is Whiggery, thundered William Butler Yeats, but a rational rancorous leveling turn of mind / That never looked out of the eye of saint or out of a drunkard's eye?) the novelists had little to fear from religious fanaticism or political censorship when they chose to deal with contemporary life And they had acquired a mass audience. A rapidly expanding western world had created widespread literacy, cheap paper and unprecedentedly rapid communications. Uncounted millions of people, educated, curious, were free to look in any direction they wanted. New discoveries, new inventions, new forms of society, new industries, were opening up new horizons every day. Marshall McLuhan would one day tell the world that television was turning it into a global village. The process had really been begun long before by Walter Scott, Jane Austen, James Fenimore Cooper, Balzac, Dickens, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Zola, Mark Twain and all those other giant magicians. At a touch of their wand, boundaries of time and space which had always kept the immense majority of mankind closed off in tiny isolated communities disappeared, and millions of bedazzled readers found a chance to share in the lives of Highland clansmen, French moneylenders and social climbers, noble redskins, street gangs of London, Russian revolutionaries, the crews in the forecastles of whaling ships, mill-owners and musketeers and striking miners. Once they had to be content with the all too familiar misfortunes and peccadillos of Aunt Fanny and Neighbor Jones, or with more or less fantastic tales about knights errant, pirates and princesses in strange and distant lands. Now the two forms could merge, and they could become acquainted with people from beyond the horizon brought up close, familiar and strange at the same time, just as full of life as Neighbor Jones but far more stimulating.
Now they could share in the ecclesiastical politics of Barchester Close, learn the secrets of society divorces in London, track criminals through the sewers of Paris, climb a ladder into Mlle. de la Mole's bedroom, eavesdrop on the fighting at Waterloo or at Borodino, peep behind the closed curtains of the Bovary house in Normandy, share the suffering in Mr. Heathcliff's gloomy keep in Yorkshire and in Uncle Tom's cabin in Kentucky, discover why one wears a scarlet letter in Massachusetts and which of the troublesome Karamazov boys had murdered their vile old man in the little town of Skotoprinyevsk.
The novel was of course never intended to be a mere collection of bits of interesting gossip. Jane Austen proudly described it as a work "in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humor are conveyed to the world in the best chosen language.".
But on the other hand, it was never so snooty as to deny its affinity to old Dame Gossip. All the spiritual effulgence of which Jane Austen properly boasts shines around a hard gritty lump of quotidian reality, the tales told in kitchen or tavern in which the novelists find the mainspring of the action which will reveal all those happy varieties of human nature.
For all their immense disparity in style and outlook, these authors share a common convention which makes it easy to read them all consecutively, which makes it easy to switch from Jane Austen to Stendhal to Tolstoy to Trollope without breaking stride. They are all friendly people ‑‑ primly English or theatrically Russian makes no matter ‑‑ taking you into their confidence as they chat with you about things they have seen, people that interest them and which they are sure will interest you because they are not that different from yourself or the people you have known.
Some of these novelists took time out to denounce gossip, but that is the oldest trick of the gossiper's trade. ("This isn't just a rumor I'm giving you, it's something my Uncle Ben saw with his own eyes") The fact remains that they were all inveterate gossips who could not stop spinning out more and more details to keep you curious about what was coming next. No matter what higher aspirations they had, no matter that Balzac was convinced he was creating a major scientific treatise, or that Tolstoy always was seeking either his own salvation or that of the human race, they never lost sight of their job as popular entertainers, as storytellers, gossips.
It is also true that owing to their breadth of vision, their wide experience and their wide sympathies, their stories changed almost automatically in their hands, they became universal myths overnight. In ancient Greece it might have taken centuries for scattered items of local gossip to coalesce into the myth of Oedipus the King. In 19th century London, Fagin and the Artful Dodger acquired the aura and authority of myth as fast as the weekly installments of Oliver Twist could keep coming off the press.
The crowds waiting at the New York docks for the steamer with the latest news of Oliver's woes and how Bill Sykes murdered Nancy mark the apogee of gossip. No other art form has ever rivaled the 19th century novel in establishing deep and intimate personal relations between artist and audience.
In our time, both Mickey Spillane and John Lennon have said that if they had been born in Elizabethan England they might have been Shakespeare. That is as may be, but there is no doubt that all three were enormously popular authors reaching into all levels of the audience available to them. Euripides too had been popular, and so was Charlie Chaplin. None of them could ever be as popular as Dickens was popular, because none of them can be imagined coming in your front door and settling down for a heart-warming informative chat.
As in all good gossip, in novels of the golden age you always know where you are, and when. You have been invited to witness events which may be extraordinary and unexpected, but they always fit into an orderly structure of time and space, often specified in the very first words on the first page:
It was one of the hottest days of the summer of 1853. By the side of the Moscow River, not far from Kuntsovo, two young men were lying on the grass in the shade of a tall lime tree. (Turgenev)
One evening of late summer, before the nineteenth century had reached one-third of its span, a young man and woman, the latter carrying a child, were approaching the large village of Weydon-Priors, in Upper Wessex, on foot. (Hardy)
On a January evening of the early seventies, Christine Nilsson was singing in Faust at the academy of Music in New York. (Edith Wharton)
The characters in these novels have names, addresses, families, occupations. Their action is linear. If they leave their lodgings to go to church or to the palace of Cardinal Richelieu, you know they will arrive there, unless some unexpected turn of the plot intervenes. The waves of life break over them in order.
It was not long before novelists began to find this a too narrow horizon. By the middle of the 19th century they were fretting at the narrow cells in which they were expected to work, they wanted to soar into the bright clouds of the unfettered imagination. Flaubert, who said his overriding ambition was to pour thousand proof alcohol down the throat of the namby‑pamby bourgeois public, almost had to be physically forced to turn his attention to a vulgar case of small town adultery when he really wanted to dream up ever more loathsome temptations for St. Anthony in the desert and recreate the spicy horrors of an ancient Carthage where princesses could touch up their eyebrows with a paste made of crushed flies' legs.
Yet the most daring of the new novelists remained bound, however grudgingly, to Dame Gossip's apron strings.
Moby Dick; or, The Whale, published in 1851, may be considered the first of the great anti-gossiparian novels. It is an epic prose poem about man, about God, about America, about the restless soul of Herman Melville. But it is also a matter-of-fact account of some people, engaged in a commercial enterprise, turning whales into oil for lamps. The first hundred of its seven hundred-odd pages are almost pure gossip, hearty talk from one Ishmael, a sailor down on his luck such as you might meet in any waterfront saloon. He tells you how he drifted to Nantucket, how he made friends with the cannibal harpooner Queequeg, how they were both signed up by a couple of eccentric Yankee sea-captains named Peleg and Bildad for a long voyage to the South Seas on board the whaler Pequod. It doesn't take the attentive reader long to realize that this is not going to be an ordinary ship, or an ordinary voyage. There are premonitory signs everywhere, and the sermon which Ishmael hears in the local church is pointedly about Jonah, who was swallowed by a whale. But the general tone of what Ishmael has to say is relaxed, down-to-earth, gossipy. Even when the voyage gets under way, and we discover that we are on a ghost ship, with a mad Yankee captain on deck and a boat-load of mad Persians in the hold, and the spirit of evil sends up spouts on the horizon, Ishmael is careful to break up his narrative with long chunks of straightforward prose describing the mechanics of whaling and of shipboard life.. These chapters, which too many readers skip, contain some of the best writing in the book, and if they were not there as ballast, the whole thing might fly away on the wings of the author's febrile imagination. They are prosy and informative and a little boastful, as anybody might be when gossiping about having participated in some great endeavor. All the technical details about the Pequod, a floating factory in seas more distant and more dangerous than Captain Cook ever explored, hardly bigger than a whale but a major contributor to the American economy, help give the voyage the grandeur of the ancient quest for the Golden Fleece. All the grander, as Melville insists, because the crew is flesh and blood. Even Captain Ahab who talks like a combination of Shakespeare's Macbeth and Milton's Satan, has a wife and child back home in Massachusetts, though the author wisely desists from any speculation on what life in that home might be like.. Without its down-to-earth, or down-to-sea, details, Moby-Dick would be a horror-show entertainment, a scary rhetorical exercise, like a Poe story or a Hitchcock movie, about a madman who destroys himself and his vessel and his whole crew in order to get even with a whale.
Dostoyevsky's The Possessed,.published a quarter of a century after Moby-Dick would seem to have nothing in common with it, except that the theme of both books is mania, and the mania is shown seeping gradually into an apparently ordinary and orderly world. The first hundred pages of The Possessed are also almost pure gossip, detailing everything that is being talked about in a "nonremarkable town" somewhere in 19th-century Russia where if the novelists are to be believed all towns looked alike. The gossip is provided by a narrator who fits every one's specifications for a small-town busybody of the most odious traditional type: mean, envious, compulsively seeking out the nasty detail. He is a minor bureaucrat named Govarov, he hates every one he calls a dear friend, he has wormed his way into everyone's confidence and can record all the conversations of the odiously vain old Stepan Verhovensky and the odiously silly old Mrs. Stavrogin and all the marital and monetary intrigues, all the snobberies and secret envies and petty intrigues of a stuffy idle provincial society.
All information in this town is transmitted in the traditional way, by word of mouth. "My mother found it out from my old nanny, Alyona, who got it from your Nastasya. And you told her yourself, didn't you?" Or:
"I spoke in a whisper in his ear, in a corner; how could you have heard of it?"
"I was sitting there under the table. Don't disturb yourselves, gentlemen. I know every step you take. You smile sarcastically, Mr.Liputin? But I know, for instance, that you pinched your wife black and blue at midnight, three days ago in your bedroom as you were going to bed."
Liputin's mouth fell open and he turned pale. (It was
afterwards found out that he knew of this exploit from Agafya, Liputin's servant, whom he had paid from the beginning to spy on him.)
Life goes on at this conventionally grotesque humdrum level only to explode into a cascade of delirious melodramas. A small group of dim-witted revolutionaries -- people like Kirilov who dreams of making a hundred million heads roll -- works on the baser elements of the town -- "people like Lyamshin and Telyatnikov, wretched little Jews with a mournful but haughty smile, guffawing foreigners, poets of advanced tendencies from the capital, poets who made up with peasant caps and tarred boots for the lack of tendencies or talents, majors and colonels who ridiculed this senselessness of the service and who would have been ready for an extra ruble to unbuckle their swords and take jobs as railway clerks; generals who had abandoned their duties to become lawyers; 'progressive' arbitrators between landowners and peasants; merchants with a penchant for self-enlightenment; innumerable divinity students; women who were the embodiment of the woman question"-- to crash the gate at a reception being given by the wife of the provincial governor and create a disturbance while other maniacs are setting fire to buildings and shooting one another at random.
At the level of the pedestrian realism with which Mr Govarov's gossip starts, all this is preposterous. This is not a town in Russia or anywhere else. It is a fire in Dostoyevsky's mind, and what gives it its tremendous force for modern readers is how, the more absurd it gets, the more prophetic it sounds. Only forty years after Dostoevsky's death, various Kirilovs began to take over large parts of the globe, and, sure enough, a hundred million heads rolled.
Dostoyevsky may be said to have taken the novel into the 20th century when he started peeking systematically into what we have learned to call the unconscious mind. It is accepted more or less as a matter of fact today that the unconscious mind has depths of knowledge and wisdom far more meaningful than anything available to the mere conscious mind and that authors and artists who tap these depths are automatically more profound and more significant than their simple-minded predecessors. However, even those who have reveled most in what D.H. Lawrence called the fantasia of the unconscious must admit that the increased knowledge and wisdom is acquired at a price. By abandoning the conventions of gossip, the 20th century novelists may have opened up new areas of the human mind; they also lost their universal audience.
Modern critics make fun of the 19th century novel for its device of the omniscient narrator, who is of course the novelist himself slipping with suspicious ease from one character's mind to another. A favorite device of 20th century literature is to approach the same scene from different points of view, thus exposing the lack of anything real in what we fatuously call reality. This is only a different kind of omniscience, more sophisticated but also more pretentious than the stodgy old Victorian kind. The great vice of the kind of literature called "modern," and even more of literature called "post-modern," is that it accepts not just the omniscience but the omnipotence of the author's (presumably unconscious) mind. André Malraux has traced the origins of modernism to the day when the starving and delirious young poet Isidore Ducasse read over the manuscript of a long prose poem he had written, called Les Chants de Maldoror: and crossed out all the tired old Byronic phrases - "beautiful as Satan...beautiful as Evil" -- and changed them to "beautiful as the sarcoptes scabies which produces the mange...beautiful as the chance meeting on an operating table of an umbrella and a sewing machine." It is quite startling the first time you read it as an adolescent, though it can hardly bear the weight of all the critical theory that has built on it. Maldoror has been described as a novel with the plot and the characters left out, but in fact there is one character in it, Maldoror himself, and like any character in a novel he has to be gossiped about. Unfortunately, Ducasse had no talent for gossip. The book comes to a climax of sorts when Maldoror has what he calls a "long, chaste and hideous copulation" with a shark, a feat which becomes less interesting the more you try to visualize it. I once knew a mad Russian psychoanalyst who kept a shark in his swimming-pool on Malibu beach because he said it was the creature he felt most akin to. "You can cut out its brain, and it will still bite your arm off." This physician never so far as I know copulated with his friend, but he was Russian enough to have tried and I can't help feeling that some straightforward gossip about the physical contact between the two of them would produce effects of giddy horror just as disturbing as. and much funnier than, Ducasse's little pipe-dream.
iv. The Land of Dreams
All golden ages must come to an end. By the beginning of the 20th century, the great seas over which the old novelists had sailed had come to look like land-locked harbors, and the new novelists were anxious to cast off from the old moorings, as again you can often tell from the opening sentences:
For a long time I used to go to bed early. (Proust)
Someone must have traduced Joseph K., for without having done anything wrong, he was arrested one fine morning. (Kafka)
Jewel and I come up from the field, following the path in single file. Although I am fifteen feet ahead of him, anyone watching us from the cottonhouse can see Jewel's frayed and broken straw hat a full head above my own. (Faulkner)
They look like the old sentences, they are definite enough, they have the breath of life. But there is a faint blurring of the outlines. Even in the vividly precise Faulkner scene we are not walking on firm familiar ground. And all these novels will turn out to be not at all novels in the old sense, they will be parables, apocalypses, visions in which very vividly delineated characters doing very vividly delineated things will be operating not by the laws of our ordinary daily life but in idiosyncratic patterns set up in their authors' minds. Their logic is the logic of dreams.
The unconscious mind can of course communicate directly with us only through dreams, and dreams, properly examined, can be seen as remarkably similar in many respects to what the conscious world calls gossip. Like myths, they tell stories, and like myths, the ones that are remembered are the ones that for one reason or another are interesting. Like any good gossip, the dreamsmith locked up in our skulls looks for the vivid detail, the sharply defined anecdote with sharply defined characters. Like any good gossip, he (she?) makes sure that everything he shows us is coherent, makes sense, at least as long as we are dreaming - it is only when we wake up and filter the dream through our conscious mind that it begins to sound a little peculiar..Just as any good gossip would not think of wasting your time telling you of all the times Mrs. Jones walked up and down stairs yesterday or how many times she relieved her bladder but gets right to the point, that she was knocked downstairs by her teen-age lover, so our unconscious minds do not bother to keep us up to date on all the work they are doing all the time, such as regulating our blood flow and our digestion, but concentrate on scenes or situations involving our emotions and our unspoken desires. If they don't, we simply forget them as we forget all but a tiny handful of the billions of things that happen to us in our waking life.
Unlike the ordinary daytime gossiper, the dreamer has a captive audience which has no chance to interrupt the flow of information by yawning or slipping quietly out the door. This gives him a chance to spin out his dreams with a boldness and freedom which the constraints of daily waking life, not to speak of the clamor of a bad conscience, do their best to suppress. The dream can bring together with startling clarity in the night feelings and events which time and space and a sense of propriety keep far apart during the day.
There is one very useful thing, however, which the unconscious mind lacks and which is necessary to getting through the day without disaster, and that is common sense. Gossip cannot exist without common sense, it must deal with plausible events happening to real people, bound by certain laws dealing with space and time. Effect follows cause, and the number of dimensions is three. The events occur in patterns which we have all learned to recognize from experience.
In dreams, on the other hand, which are incapable of learning from experience, we can fly through the walls of our beloved's bedroom, we can murder our fathers with impunity or turn our sisters into mice, we can disregard the laws of God and man and probability, we can annihilate, as the poet puts it, all that's made to a green thought in a green shade.
The illusion of omnipotence is heady, but at some point it becomes necessary to remember that it is an illusion. For all its vaulting ambitions, the human skull remains narrower than the world outside..
The psychoanalyst Viktor Frankl was dragged from his home in Vienna by the Nazis in 1940 and sent, along with his wife, to a concentration camp. She was killed in a few days, but he survived for five years. One night some time during those five years, lying on the wooden bunk he shared with two other prisoners, he became aware that the man on his right was suffering the worst nightmare he had ever come across in his professional career: uninterruptedly uncontrollably groaning, howling, writhing, thrashing. Everything in his doctor's training told him to wake the man up before he hurt himself, this is the most effective way to stop a nightmare. But just as he was about to grab him and shake him, he remembered that what the man would be waking up to would be daily life in Auschwitz, and that was a hundred times worse than anything the mere human imagination could dream up by itself. So he let the nightmare gallop on.
The great novelists of the 20th century, the Joyces, Prousts, Kafkas, Lawrences, Faulkners and so on, have done extraordinary things with the green shade, there has never been a time when such virtuosity was used to mate language to the secret insights and yearnings of the soul. At the same time, they have more often than not lost sight of the tree that casts the shade and the people who are walking in it. Both tree and people get themselves into absurd situations, where common sense would dearly like to see an explanation, but none is forthcoming.
No one can object to this in a short lyric poem, but in a long prose narrative it presents problems. Blake's tiger burning bright in the forests of the night is a startling and highly effective image of a terrible superhuman force running loose in the universe. If this tiger would turn up as a character in a novel, like Moby Dick, he would look perfectly silly, since a real-life tiger would soon starve to death if it lit up in the night and scared away all its prey.
The novel is an impure medium, and cannot be very strictly defined, but the least the ordinary reader can expect of it is that it deal with people who seem real, performing plausible actions in recognizable landscapes. No such necessity adheres to dreams, and twentieth-century novelists are delighted to do without the necessity. Space and time, cause and effect, which are the building blocks of gossip, can merge, fade, or take flight on the wings of fancy .We are left with a dazzling performance -- "God paring his nails," was the way Joyce put it -- and poor plodding Dame Gossip is left far behind.
It is a pity, because the novelists of the golden age owed their universal appeal to their ability, unparalleled in the history of literature, to find a balance between earth-bound gossip and heaven-storming imagination.
Not that the 20th and 21st century novelists have been unalterably opposed to gossip. Indeed most if not all of them have loved to gossip in their private lives -- being novelists they could hardly help being curious about the world around them -- and often they gossip brilliantly in their works. Henry James, who may be considered the first of the modern novelists, loved to shut himself up in a cozy room with Edith Wharton and other friends to let them pour out all the latest scandals in society. When it came to his work, however, he had no time for such undisciplined stuff.
The longer and more complex his novels got, the more they tended to build themselves around a simple, usually rather sordid, anecdote, and as he grew older he made less and less effort to make the anecdote plausible. It was simply a device on which he could hang the wonders of his narrative and analytic skills.
The plot he chose for his last masterpiece The Golden Bowl, might have been the plot of a French farce. Adam and Maggie Verver are passionately in love with each other, but, since they are father and daughter, they cannot decently go on living alone together. Unbeknownst to Maggie, her best friend Charlotte is in love with an Italian prince, and he with her, but since they are both penniless fortune-hunters they cannot get married. A meddling friend provides Maggie with the chance to work out an ideal arrangement: she will marry the prince, papa will marry Charlotte, and all four can live together in harmonious luxury. Everything goes swimmingly until an amazing coincidence involving a cracked golden bowl in an antique shop reveals to Maggie that the arrangement she thought of so proudly as her own had really been planned in advance by Charlotte, whereupon a great emotional storm arises. It is a situation which in a French farce would produce some hair-pulling and some crockery-breaking and finally some ingenious twist of the plot which would reshuffle the partners into a happy ending. James, however, planned his work as a monumental two-volume version of King Lear, and did succeed in turning it into one of the great horror stories of all time, Maggie turns into a bitch goddess and will not stop howling and slavering till she has utterly destroyed the lives of every one involved. She bullies her father into marrying the slut Charlotte. She herself will go on living out a desperately conventional marriage with her prince, who can offer her sexual satisfaction, a rare commodity in James novels, but is otherwise a thorough rotter, like all fortune-hunters and most foreigners in James novels. Maggie's father, Old Adam acquiesces in all this, and, since he is one of the six richest men in America, a self-made millionaire of the Ross Perot type, he go on paying the bills.. If ever a character in a novel who cried out to be gossiped about, it was Adam Verver. But it would have been against James's principles to get into the sordid details of what any self-respecting gossip would have insisted on knowing, such as how Mr. Verver made all that money and how he goes about building up what appears to be the greatest art collection in the modern world. James had a horror of showing anyone doing anything, he preferred them agonizing over the manifold possible reasons for not doing it. Of such is gossip not made.
Yet in the first hundred pages of the novel, most of which deal with Charlotte's not buying the golden bowl, he reveals all the talents of an inspired gossip. He knows exactly who is doing what and why, because he is in the world of the fortune-hunters and what they are dealing with is something very tangible, money that is out of reach. James never had enough money, and he was keenly alive to all the ambiguous emotions such a situation entails. When he gets to Maggie and her father, he is dealing with vast sums of money in the pocket, money in the bank, and in James such money is purely symbolic, it stands for innocence and virtue. Hence Adam Verver, despite his little beard and his little paunch, becomes a disembodied presence, a kind of moral seismograph registering the most delicate degrees of awareness and suspicion and hostility in his little ménage à quatre. The sensitivity and sacrifice of Adam Verver would be very moving, if it were possible to believe that a self-made Midwestern millionaire who addresses his son-in-law with words like
"You're round, my boy, you're all, you're variously and inexhaustibly round, when you might, by all the chances, have been abominably square"
could ever have existed. As it is, the most moving scene in the book is the one in which Charlotte goes wandering at the end of an invisible leash around the great rented house in the English countryside, silently wailing over her fate. Her fate is to spend the rest of her life, or more precisely the years before her husband dies, showing frumpish American ladies around her husband's art collection in the horrid city he has built somewhere west of the Mississippi, and once stated in these flat gossipy terms, it is nightmarish enough but it is also hard to take seriously.
James Joyce was another great gossip who had more serious things on his mind. His Ulysses is so crammed with the details of the lower-middle-class Dublin he knew that hundreds of pilgrims can flock there every Bloomsday in June and get drunk in the very bars where all the characters in the book got drunk and walk on the very sands where Mr. Bloom masturbated at the sight of Gertie McDowell's drawers.
This last episode, which is very funny and very sad, takes place in the very middle of the book, something which in Joyce cannot be the work of chance. There is some profound symbolism here (the equivalent place in the adventures of the original Ulysses as recounted by Homer finds him tied to a mast between Scylla and Charybdis while sirens sing) and I am sure that the commentators have done their best to expound on it. Poor Mr. Bloom, likeable as he may be (he was, after all, a self-portrait) seems to be drowning in symbols for hundreds of pages consecutively, and I think most readers have found the only way to get through the book is to skip lightly over the brightly purple passages and keep an eye out for the gossip about dear dirty Dublin..
The desiccation of gossip is carried by Joyce to its logical (logical in an Irish sense at any rate) conclusion in Finnegans Wake where the tantalizing fragments of life in dear dirty Dublin are only flotsam on a great sea of literary devices. Consider the climactic scene, as day is about to break and put an end to the long troubled dream of Mr. Earwicker alias Finnegan which has by now lasted for six hundred and ten pages. The arrival of dawn is symbolically enacted in a scene in which Saint Patrick, who the commentators say represents gray day, logic, imperialism and the Roman Catholic Church, triumphs in debate before the High King Leary over the Arch-Druid of Ireland, who represents poetry, the night and the multi-colored world of the Celtic imagination. The dreamy Arch-Druid speaks in Chinese pidgin:
Tunc. Bymeby, bullocky vampas tappany bobs topside joss pidgin fella Balkelly, archdruid of islish chinchinjoss in the his heptachromatic sevenhued septicoloured roranyellgreenlindigan mantle finish he show along the his mister guest Patholic...speeching, yeh not speeching noh man liberty is, he drink up words, scilicet, tomorrow till recover will not, all too many much illusiones through photoprismic velamina of hueful panepiphenal world spectacurum of Lord Joss, the of which zoantholitic furniture, from mineral through vegetal top animal, not appear to full up together fallen man than under but one photoreflection of the several Airedales graduations of solar light, that one which what part of it (ferned of heupanepi world) had show itself (part of fur of huspanwor) unable to absorbere, whereas for numpa one puraduxed seer in seventh degree of wisdom of Entis-Onton he savvy inside true inwardness of reality, the Ding hvad in idself id est, all objects (of panepiwor) allside showed themselves in trues coloribus resplendent with sextuple gloria of light actually retained, untisintus, inside them (obs of epiwo). Etc.
while the blunt businesslike St. Patrick speaks in Japanese pidgin:
Punc. Bigseer, refrects the petty padre, whackling it out, a tumble to takem tripeness to call thing and to call if say is good while, you pore shiroskuro blackinwhitepaddynger, by thiswis aposteriprismically apatsrophized and paralogically periparolysed, celestial from principalest of Iro's Irismans ruinboom pot before (for beingtime monkblinkers timeblinged completementarily murkblankered in their neutrolysis between the possible viriditude of the sager and the probable eruberuption of the saint) and so on..
. When you get it all worked out, you may find it both funny and stimulating, like a highbrow crossword puzzle in the London Times; though it is hard not to sympathize with Ezra Pound's exasperated comment that the only justification for all the wearisome work of decipherment involved in reading Finnegans Wake would be to find at the end of it a cure for the clap. More friendly commentators have found in this passage a symbolic representation of the clash of two world cultures, two ways of life, and their eternally opposing values.
Such conflict of world values was not beyond the reach of novelists of the golden age. Here, for example, is Sir Walter Scott, who was as much an innovator in his century as Joyce was in the next one, in the concluding scene of The Talisman, which describes a climactic moment of the Third Crusade at the end of the 12th century. The wily Moslem leader Saladin is about to negotiate a peace treaty (the only such treaty that would ever last for more than half a century in the Middle East), with the crusader hero King Richard the Lion Heart of England, known to countless generations of Arab children as the Melech Ric, a bugbear who will devour them if they misbehave. Saladin challenges Richard to a trial of strength, and
"Willingly, noble Saladin," answered Richard; and, looking around for something whereon to exercise his strength, he saw a steel mace, held by one of the attendants, the handle being of the same metal and about an inch and a half in diameter. This he placed on a block of wood.
The anxiety of De Vaux [one of Richard's attendants] for his master's honor led him to whisper in English, "For the blessed Virgin's sake, beware what you attempt, my liege. Your full strength is not as yet returned; give no triumph to the infidel." "Peace, fool," said Richard, standing firm on the ground and casting a fierce glance around. "Thinkest thou I can fail in his presence?"
The glittering broadsword, wielded by both his hands, rose aloft to the King's left shoulder, circled round his head, descended with the sway of some terrific engine, and the bar of iron rolled on the ground in two pieces as a woodman would sever a sapling with a hedging-bill.
"By the head of the Prophet, a most wonderful blow," said the Soldan, critically and accurately examining the iron bar which had been cut asunder; the blade of the sword was so well tempered as to exhibit not the least token of having suffered by the feat it had performed. He then took the King's hand, and, looking at the size and muscular strength which it exhibited laughed as he placed it beside his own, so lank and thin, so inferior in brawn and sinew.
"Ay look well," said De Vaux in English. "It will be long ere your long jackanapes fingers do such a feat with your fine gilded reaping-hook there."
"Silence, De Vaux," said Richard...
The Soldan presently said, "Something I would fain attempt, though wherefore should the weak show their inferiority in the presence of the strong? Yet each land has its own exercises, and this may be new to the Melech Ric."
So saying, he took from the floor a cushion of silk and down, and placed it upright on one end. "Can thy weapon, my brother, sever that cushion?" he said to King Richard. "No surely, replied the King. "No sword on earth, were it the Excalibur of King Arthur, can sever that which exposes no steady resistance to the blow."
"Mark then," said Saladin, and tucking up the sleeve of his gown, showed his arm thin indeed and spare, but which constant exercise had hardened into a mass consisting of nought but bone, brawn and sinew. He unsheathed his scimitar, a curved narrow blade, which glittered not like the swords of the Franks, but was on the contrary of a dull blue color, marked with the million of meandering lines which showed how anxiously the metals had been welded by the armorer. Wielding this weapon, the Soldan stood resting his weight upon his left foot, which was slightly advanced; he balanced himself a little as if to steady his aim, then stepping at once forward, drew the scimitar across the cushion, applying the edge so dexterously and with so little apparent effort, that the cushion seemed rather to fall asunder than to be divided by violence.
"It is a jugglers trick," said De Vaux... The Soldan seemed to comprehend him, for he undid the sort of veil which he had hitherto worn, laid it double along the edge of his sabre, extended the weapon edgeways in the air, and drawing it suddenly through the veil, although it hung entirely loose, severed that also into two parts, which floated to different sides of the tent.
A story just like this might well have been relayed by gossips in taverns in Damascus or in London at the end of the 12th century. (What a shame it is that Saladin's personal physician, Moses ben Maimon, known to the West as Maimonides, who must have known everything that was being gossiped about at the court of the Soldan, never thought of writing any of it down when he came home to dinner. But he had no time to spare from his authoritative guide through the thickets of Jewish law, Guide to the Perplexed.)
Sir Walter's story is inaccurate, as gossip so often is, for Saladin and Richard never met face to face. But Saladin and Richard were legitimate and well-known historical characters and the story would have seemed perfectly plausible to hearers at the time. Even today, centuries later, for all its awkwardly old-fashioned language, it sounds like a lively enough tale and a playfully thought-provoking commentary on the eternal conflict of blunt brutal West and supple wily East.
Joyce's Arch-Druid and Patrick, on the other hand, seem further removed from real life the more you look at them. It obviously does not matter that there was never such a person as an Archdruid of Ireland or, according to the latest pronouncements of the Roman church, such a person as Saint Patrick either. But a Japanese reader might well object that the story as told is very unfair to his country, since, viewed in the broad perspective of historic time the Japanese were imperialists for less than a century, between the arrivals of Commodore Perry and General MacArthur, while the Chinese have been expansionist for thousands of years. Moreover, Japanese art has always been more colorful than Chinese. And only a blind man could believe that the world of dreams is more colorful than the world you can see out of your window.
It is not to be wondered at that Scott in his day was read by everybody who could read, while Finnegans Wake can reveal its treasures only to multilingual graduate students.
It has become fashionable to say that the novel is dead. Any visit to a bookstore can prove that this is nonsense. There are plenty of readable and a few rewarding novels being published every year. They often touch on areas of human experience, notably sexual experience, that were taboo in Victorian days, and they can be strikingly original in style and outlook. There is, however, a general feeling which like most general feelings has a certain kernel of truth in it that there are no Great Novelists any more. No one since the early Faulkner has been even a serious contender for the title.
This is not necessarily the fault of the novelists, for the novel itself has become marginalized. For the brief century of its glory it fulfilled and transcended two of the main functions which had belonged to Dame Gossip over the ages. It provided a steady stream of information to satisfy every curiosity, about what was going on everywhere near and far. And it created familiar characters who became part of common life and common conversation.
In the 19th century, every one would have recognized d'Artagnan if he walked down the street in his musketeer boots Today who can remember the name of the hero of For Whom the Bell Tolls, a character with roughly similar values and behavior patterns? Or indeed anything about him except that he carried a sleeping bag with him? (I remember also that he described himself as an Idaho Republican.) For most people, he is just another Hemingway hero. It is the novelist rather than the novel that takes first place, for the action has moved inside, into the capacious chambers of his mind.
In the 19th century, the names of novelistic characters would spring to everyone's mind, would enter everyone's conversation, whether Ivanhoe or Jane Eyre or Anna Karenina or the Hunchback of Notre Dame or Huckleberry Finn. For characters of equal resonance in the 20th century, we have to turn to eccentric branches off the main trunk of the novel, the detective story or the fantastic adventure story which in time mutates into the science fiction story. Sherlock Holmes and Tarzan of the Apes and Batman are universal in a way that Stephen Dedalus and the Baron de Charlus or even the Great Gatsby could never hope to be. The last novelistic character who became a word in the English dictionary is, I believe, Sinclair Lewis's George Babbitt (1923). A half century or so later, John Updike was writing his Rabbit Angstrom novels, which give a much more entertaining and much more penetrating view of American small-city life than Lewis ever did. But George Babbitt has made it into Webster, and Rabbit Angstrom never will.
Comic books and Hollywood movies, not Nietzsche and Shaw, provide us with the unforgettable image summoned up by the word Superman. The 19th century novel gave us overarching figures from the animal kingdom, like Moby Dick and the Hound of the Baskervilles. Their 20th century equivalent is Mickey Mouse.
It is hard to think of any novel since Gone with the Wind that really entered the consciousness of the whole world And that consciousness is today formed largely by the images of the Hollywood production.
Novelists, afrter all, must chage with the times they live in. And so must And so must Dame Gossip, if she expects to survive along with the human race.
Charles Greville, a man-about-town in early-Victorian London, kept a diary in which he wrote everything he knew, and he knew everything, with a cheerful garrulity which Queen Victoria, who read him behding closed doors as did everyone else, described as being in "DISGRACEFULLY bad taste."
Historians comb through it for details of the back-stage maneuvers and intrigues of public figures like Lord Palmerston and Sir Robert Peel, architects of English greatness. The common reader of the 21st century, who knows little or nothing of Palmerston and Peel, will turn with more pleasure to more commonplace figures:
The other day died the Duchess of Cannizzaro, a woman of rather amusing notoriety whom the world laughed with and laughed at...She was a Miss Johnstone and got from her brother a large fortune; very short and fat, with rather a handsome face, totally uneducated, but full of humor, vivacity and natural drollery, at the same time passionate and capricious...Soon after the Brother's death she married the count San Antonio (who was afterwards made Duke of Cannizzaro) a good-looking intelligent but penniless Sicilian of high birth, who was pretty successful in all ways in society here. He became disgusted with her however, and went off to Italy, on a separate allowance which she made him. After a few years he returned to England, and they lived together again; but he not only became more disgusted than before, but he had in the meantime formed a liaison in Milan with a very distinguished woman there, once a magnificent beauty but now as old and as large as his own wife, and to her he was very anxious to return. This was Madame Visconti ...Accordingly, San Antonio took occasion to elope (by himself) from some party of pleasure at which he was present with his spouse, and when she found out that he had gone off without notice of returning, she fell into violent fits of grief...and then set off in pursuit of her faithless lord. She got to Dover, where the sight of the rolling billows terrified her so much that after three days of doubt whether she should cross the water or not, she resolved to return and weep away her vexation in London. Not long afterwards however she plucked up courage and taking advantage of a smooth sea she ventured over the Strait, and set on to Milan, if not to recover her fugitive better self, at all events to terrify her rival and disturb their joys. The advent of the Cannizzaro woman was to the Visconti like the irruption of the Huns of old. She fled to a villa near Milan, which she proceeded to garrison and fortify, but finding that the other was not provided with any implements for a siege, and did not venture to stir from Milan, she ventured to return to the city, and for some times these ancient Heroines drove about the town glaring defiance and hate at each other, which was the whole amount of the hostilities that took place between them. Finding her husband was irrecoverable, she at length got tired of the hopeless pursuit, and resolved to return home, and console herself with her music and whatever other gratifications she could command. Not long after, She took into keeping a strapping young Italian, a third-rate singer at some small theater in Italy, who came over here on speculation and found this if not the most agreeable from the nature of the work the most profitable business he could engage in...The worst part of the story was that this profligate blackguard bullied and plundered her without mercy or shame, and She had managed very nearly to ruin herself before her death. What she had left, she bequeathed to her husband, notwithstanding his infidelities and his absence. (The Duke of Cannizzaro only enjoyed his inheritance a few months as he died at Como in October 1841).
A century and a half after Greville, people who wanted to know what was going on in London society, could turn to page 3 of the Times wherever they were sitting to learn about the marriage of "Imran Khan, the former Pakistani cricket captain and the heiress Jemima Goldsmith under a scorching sun:"
The ceremony, in a freshly painted green and gold wedding chamber, was performed by Superintendent Registrar Marie Guinchard and took 20 minutes. The witnesses were Sir James Goldsmith and Lady Annabel and Imran's sisters, Noreen and Rubina Khan. The best man was Mark Hands, brother of Camilla Parker Bowles, who is married to another member of the Goldsmith family, Clio.
More than 150 guests, including Princess Michael of Kent, joined the celebrations at a midsummer dance in a marquee in the garden of the family home. Dancing was to the 18-piece Tommy Dorsey Band and the guests, apart from the devout Muslims, drank Bollinger champagne.
The Princess of Wales was invited but could not attend as she was dining last night with Henry Kissinger, who was also invited to the party.
Sir James, who was elected a French Euro-MP last year, needed all his diplomatic skills to tiptoe through introductions at the party. Among the guests was Madame Laure Boulaye de la Meurthe, who is acknowledged as his mistress.
Lord White of Hull, the financier and friend of Sir James, was there with his wife. Lord White's daughter Sita told newspapers last month that she is the mother of Imran's illegitimate daughter Tyrian. The child was born after Miss White's affair with the cricketer ended.
Lady Annabel's first husband, Mark Birley, who named his Belgravia nightclub after her, was at the party with their son Robin.
Other guests included John Aspinall, the zoo owner; Lord Lambton, the former Conservative government minister who resigned in a call-girl scandal in the '70's; and Georgie Fame the singer....
The groom's father is understood to be unwell and was unable to travel from his house in Lahore.
It takes only a glance at these two pieces of prose to realize that in the century and a half which separates them the style if not the substance of gossip has radically changed.
The Greville passage is a leisurely anecdote designed to be spun out over brandy and cigars in a comfortable club-room or drawing-room . The Times story is a series of staccato outbursts.
It can be taken as a paradigm of 19th century Britain, with its unselfconscious imperialist good cheer, enjoying the spectacle of life without any notion that a more censorious generation would find it in bad taste to make fun of foreigners, even if they be fortune-hunters, or of fat ladies, even if they be foolish. On the other hand, behind the staccato bursts, and the frozen smirk on the face, of the Times reporter you can hear a desperate late-20th-century wail There are some pasts that can never be recaptured. This is now the 21st century, and the sheer sweep of modern history and modern technology may well have guaranteed that the novel will never go back to its glory days of the 19th. The roles which it filled then have been gradually but ineluctably usurped by wave after wave of fresh media, the movies, radio, television, the Internet and even by old-fashioned newspapers which are being changed before our very eyes from dreary chronicles of politics and crime and war into uninterrupted gossip columns.
In this crowded terrain, twentieth century novelists have neither the time nor the inclination to adopt the boon-companion role of their ancestors, they have had to adopt a more confrontational approach. This is not always expressed with the crude cynicism of Bertolt Brecht's dictum, "Art is not a mirror to reflect reality, it is a hammer to beat it into shape," but readers are constantly being reminded that they are no longer in an easy-chair across from mine host of the tavern, they are being hectored by disheveled prophets exposing the hiding-places of the human heart who will brook no dissent. As a French minister of Culture said of the revolutionary artists besieging his office for subsidies in the tumultuous 'sixties, they come with a begging-bowl in one hand and a Molotov cocktail in the other.
There is, however, no reason to believe that this art form which has proved so adaptable in the past will not go on indefinitely into the future. Its scope will expand and contract with the taste of the times. Its style will perhaps become purer: the world is full of writing workshops where any novice can learn to avoid the stylistic excesses and structural defects of George Eliot and Balzac. There will always be some nostalgia, however, for the old impure gossipy flavor, like that which the poet Barbara Guest found in muddy rock water from the upper Mississippi, so much more satisfying than the immaculate waters of the Alps - "the tough arm of water that likes to mingle with the crowd and pick up its bitters in a dirty old smoky fist. Like Dickens".
V. Self-propelled Gossip
Everyone knows that our literature, like everything else that concerns us, has had to adjust to the ways of the new Rome of universal interactive communication in which we now live. The road to this Rome was not built in a day. The boundaries between what could and could not be revealed to the general public had to come down gradually, today's scandal had to be given time to mellow into tomorrow's cliché.
The first scouts and pathfinders of the new directions were probably the artists and writers who perfected what may be called self‑propelled Gossip.
Gossip is among other things a theatrical art, its very life depends on its ability to hold an audience. While it may be part of our genetic make-up that the object of greatest interest to ourselves is ourselves, we are also endowed with a critical sense which allows us to learn early in life that talking about ourselves all the time is not the best way to hold an audience. We must do interesting things like Robinson Crusoe or meet interesting people like Pepys and Boswell, or face the prospect of being everywhere avoided as a crashing bore. Boredom is the death of gossip, and the great test of autobiography is to avoid it, a test failed in book after book on our library shelves. It is all too easy to think that because you are a bishop or a secretary of state, a movie star or a college president, because you were raped by your father nor had intercourse with a UFO, you will be talked about everywhere. That is why autobiographies, the self-aggrandizing accounts of the lives of bishops and self-made millionaires, of movie stars and college presidents, are quickly remaindered.
But the 20th century, building on the precepts of the Romantics, demanded Self-Expression. Let It All Hang Out,
The 19th century novelists had staked out a commanding position in the field of public gossip. They had the whole world talking about their creations, David Copperfield and the Count of Monte Cristo and Becky Sharp, as much as they did about Napoleon and Queen Victoria. It did not take writers and artists long to realize that they too could be gossiped about, and that it made the road to immortality that much easier if they were gossiped about all the time. Lord Byron, Whistler, Oscar Wilde, Hemingway, Andy Warhol, owe their fame at least as much to the way they could get stories of their private lives circulated as to the quality of their works.
A next step was to discover that it was not necessary to wait for complaisant friends to collect the anecdotes. You could gossip about yourself.
Saint Augustine may be said to have created this form a millennium and a half ago with his Confessions. Where previous famous men, like Nehemiah in the Bible and Julius Caesar had written extensively about their public successes, he chose to concentrate of his private failures, knowing instinctively that they would have a deeper appeal. He began with what in other hands would have been a trivial piece of gossip, the pilfering of some fruit from a neighbor's garden when he was a little boy. He went on to describe his inability to control by the exercise of his will. either the rise or the fall of his own penis, from which he deduced the non-existence of free will in man.
Augustine's aim was to glorify God. Jean Jacques Rousseau, godfather of revolutions, would discover a millennium and a half later, that the same technique could be used to glorify himself. His Confessions is a collection of anecdotes about what he called the "dark and dirty labyrinth" of his sex life, as well as his lies, thefts, acts of ingratitude and of cowardice, all the sides of life that "make us feel ridiculous and ashamed". He shrewdly calculated that by spilling all this dirt he would get a reputation as man of pitiless honesty and steely purity. Indeed, how could a man who recounts how he left all five of his children at foundling hospitals, where the statistical probability was overwhelming that they would all die within a few weeks, not be telling the truth? "Any one", he once said, "who could believe me to be a dishonest man deserves to be strangled ". Spoilsport scholars have examined the details and discovered that Rousseau's confessions contain the usual, or more than the usual distortions and falsehoods ordinarily found in confessions. But for two and a half centuries, he has been considered a model of courageous frankness.
The Rousseau form of self‑propelled gossip has become standard literary fare. "No one has ever laid the dark chambers of the heart so bare", say the dust jackets as we pick up the works of writers like Jean Genet and Henry Miller and Jack Kerouac, or modern poets of the confessional school , and prepare ourselves to gape in wonder at their accounts of the degradation and ignominy of a life in a cesspool closed to more conventional observers.
Dark chambers cry out for a guided tour. But just how dark are these particular chambers? What would happen if we examined these confessions in the same skeptical spirit we might have shown at the revival meetings in Mark Twain's Missouri when reformed pirates recounted the bloody atrocities they had committed on the high seas?
The funniest scene in Proust comes when the deliciously wicked Baron de Charlus, ever in the search of newer and more atrocious pleasures, hires a Paris tough to whip him and tell him all the lurid details of the various crimes he has committed. Out come the crimes, full of blood and outraged innocence, till the Baron, at a fever pitch of excitement, demands, Now tell me how you killed your mother. The criminal is outraged, he reacts like a choirboy, he wants to know, What do you take me for?
Vladimir Nabokov has brilliantly parodied this particular art form in his Lolita where, the more abject the deeds of Humbert Humbert (as when he grasps the hair of his little love close to the scalp and conducts her to the motel bed after breakfast to perform her matutinal duties), the more the suave and scintillating style in which he describes it demonstrates his immense superiority in sensitivity and intelligence to the clods who surround him and presume to disapprove of him.
There is always a peculiar passivity about literary confessors of sin and degradation. The degradation of which they are so proud is always thrust on them, they are never quite responsible. Humbert Humbert is seduced by 12-year-old Lolita in the hotel room into which he has maneuvered her. Another 12-year-old girl throws herself with passionate kisses on Dostoyevsky's Stavrogin before he deprives her of her innocence and with exquisite pleasure watches her hang herself afterwards. [Query for Swiss gossips: could Stavrogin, who spent his most sexually active years in Switzerland, have been the grandfather of Humbert Humbert?]
Rereading Tropic of Cancer, I am impressed by the way, once you have scraped away the surrealist jive, Henry Miller comes across, not as the tormented demigod of his fancies, but as a regular American Joe, tolerant, talkative, down-to-earth, a good mixer, generous to his friends, terrified of intimacy, a great guy to have a drink with. The dreary banality of his tormented speculations about the meaninglessness of life repeatedly gives way to passages of pure devil-may- care life-enhancing gossip.
I might add a bit of gossip of my own to add to the picture.
My first job found me working only a couple of desks away from the original of the priapic narcissistic newspaperman Van Norden who fills some of the liveliest pages in Tropic of Cancer. He looked and spoke just as he was described in the book (Miller was a marvelously accurate gossip). At that time New York was full of refugees of all sorts, and I had run into one, a Hungarian Baroness who specialized in giving massages to gentlemen. I mentioned her to Van Norden, and he was eager to make her acquaintance. I assumed that in that overcrowded fields of his amours he had met dozens of specimens like her and would feel at most a certain sense of nostalgia in meeting her, so I was amazed afterwards to learn that he was completely disoriented by her brisk businesslike central-European approach to her work, he was as flustered and inept as a schoolboy on his first visit to forbidden zones. It was only later that I realized that all those hundreds of conquests that the Don Juans of Montparnasse gloried in represented only two types of partners: Whores on the one hand, who could be handled with the mixture of contempt and sentimentality which is the usual response of bourgeois intellectuals to their trade; and on the other, eager American girls, of any nationality or sex, who, once they realize that the raggedy drunk is front of them is the greatest writer in the world, leap to the nearest horizontal surface.
No wonder that when Henry Miller came across a practiced man‑eater like Anais Nin, he was utterly helpless, and quite proud of his helplessness.
The unprejudiced reader is tempted to ask, what did these people actually do? They say they have plumbed the depths of degradation, and this has made them superior to us, but what exactly is the evidence? In Miller's early autobiographical works, which are probably closest to the actual experience (the memory of aging writers tends to get elastic), the only action I can remember that would count as a crime in a court of law is the stealing of some money which he had given a prostitute shortly before. Baldly stated, it seems reprehensible enough, but the atmosphere in the woman's lodgings is so bizarre that it all ends up seeming like a bad dream or a good joke.
There is a certain exhibitionistic side to this kind of gossip, and as with most exhibitionists, the interesting thing is apt to be not what they are showing but what they are hiding. Jean Genet was a very talented writer who had been a professional criminal in his youth. His life as a petty thief and prostitute was undoubtedly as dirty and degraded, as full of cowardice and betrayal, as he describes it, and the flashes of beauty and spiritual exaltation that accompany it are undoubtedly genuine too. Only the crimes seem curiously out of scale with the rhetoric. The fat middle-aged men who came down to pick up a boy on the docks surely deserved to have their pockets picked, probably expected and enjoyed being roughed up. Little feats like this may make young Genet seem like an unpleasant character you wouldn't want to run into in an alleyway or a jail cell, but they hardly justify his boast that he is the most degraded, and hence in a mystical sense the very best, of men. Sartre, who was completely taken in by him, wrote a book to prove that he was a Saint.
As with those Missouri pirates, you can't help wondering if Genet perhaps at some point of his life didn't commit some really terrible crime. He was intimate during the Occupation years in Paris with plenty of underworld characters who were active either in the Communist Party or in the Milice, the fascist paramilitary force in the service of the Nazis, or both. If he turned in one of his Resistant pals to be tortured and murdered for a handful of money, he would have been acting by the code of the criminals he used to drool over. On the other hand, the bourgeois intellectuals who lionized him after the war would have been very embarrassed by such a revelation, and so far as I know, though he loved to gossip about his sexual relations with those young men, he never brought up the subject of their business relations. It was not that he was uninterested in money: when I told him once that I had seen a bootlegged copy of his film in New York, he went into a towering rage over the royalties he was losing.
Genet was one of those talented bad boys who know how to get back at a world which casts them out, by behaving very badly and getting away with it. Perhaps the happiest moment in his life was when, at the height of the war in Algeria, right-wing toughs threatened to beat him up and disrupt performances of his play The Screens, a cry of rage against French colonialism. His current lover was a fisherman from the south of France. The fisherman had a couple of burly sons, and they all formed a bodyguard in the middle of which Genet could preen as he strolled through the elegant bar of the theater, the little thief and prostitute now a great playwright, acclaimed by massed ranks of respectable, fashionably dressed admirers, the very people whose pockets he once used to pick..
It is not that works of confessional gossip cannot be genuinely moving.
Jack Kerouac, whose early accounts of stealing cars are dreadful bores, wrote a last sad book about his last sad drunken attempt to revive his youth by visiting his old Beat haunt at Big Sur. The account of his last desperate love with the girl he calls Billie, with her little son beating on the bed and chanting Don't do it Billie, don't do it Billie, followed by the scene of Billie obsessively digging a hole in the ground just big enough to hold a coffin for her son, reads like an elegy for the Beat Generation.
vi. Gossip in poetry
Gossip, being primarily designed for information, is almost invariably in prose, not in verse. Poets may use it, it will always lurk in the background when they write narratives, but it generally remains the background, the dramatic incident out of the jumble of real life which the poet has recast, sharpened, deepened. Ballads, which have always been among the most popular forms of verse, ordinarily develop out of what were originally straightforward gossipy accounts of events in daily life - Frankie shooting Johnny three times through the hardwood door in a 19th-century whorehouse and ending up in the northeast corner of hell, a rich (at least rich enough to own a horse and a hawk) man named Edward on his 16th century moor who is manipulated by his mother into murdering his father.
But such ballads were considered mere popular entertainment, nothing so serious as Literature, till scholars of later generations began to find them quaint or lively fragments of a more colorful past or profound reflections of the soul of the folk. Or, in the case of the songs sung in the streets and disorderly houses of Paris about the loves and gonorrhea of King Louis XV, they were written down by police spies building up evidence of cases of sedition, recently unearthed from the archives of the Bastille by Professor Robert Darnton and revealed as examples of 18th-century French verse in its wittiest wickedest phase..
Modern poets with their passion for passing from direct experience to the written page have gone further than any of their predecessors in incorporating what sounds like genuine ordinary gossip in their verse.
T. S. Eliot eavesdropped on his charlady to get the material for the celebrated scene of closing time at a pub in The Waste Land:
When Lil's husband got demobbed, I said --
I didn't mince my words, I said to her myself,
HURRY UP PLEASE ITS TIME
Now Albert's coming back, make yourself a bit smart.
He'll want to know what you done with that money he gave you
To get yourself some teeth. He did, I was there.
You have them all out, Lil, and get a nice set,
He said, I swear, I can't bear to look at you.
And no more can't I, I said, and think of poor Albert,
He's been in the army four years, he wants a good time,
And if you don 't give it him, there's others will, I said.
Oh is there, she said. Something o' that, I said.
Then I'll know who to thank, she said, and give me a straight look.
HURRY UP PLEASE IT'S TIME
If you don't like it you can get on with it, I said.
Others can pick and choose if you can't.
But if Albert makes off, it won 't be for lack of telling.
You ought to be ashamed, I said, to look so antique.
(And her only thirty-one.)
I can't help it, she said, pulling a long face,
It's them pills I took, to bring it off, she said.
(She's had five already, and nearly died of young George.)
The chemist said it would be all right, but I've never been the same.
You are a proper fool, I said.
Well, if Albert won't leave you alone, there it is, I said,
What you get married for if you don't want children?
HURRY UP PLEASE ITS TIME
Well, that Sunday, Albert was home, they had a hot gammon,
And they asked me in to dinner, to get the beauty of it hot -
HURRY UP PLEASE ITS TIME
HURRY UP PLEASE ITS TIME
Goonight Bill. Goonight Lou. Goonight May. Goonight.
Ta ta. Goonight. Goonight.
Eliot was proud of having got the tone of voice right, and he had every reason to be, you could hear such phrases and such rhythms in any pub in Kentish Town or Golders Green in his day, and you probably can today. And the whole passage might be both affecting and effective if he had not added a line at the end,
Good night, ladies, good night, sweet ladies, good night, good night.
to indicate that this is all part of his tiresome tirade against the modern world. It is impossible to escape that frosty sense of superiority, that pinched contempt for the people of London whom he described as 'these crawling bugs" in one of the parts of the poem cut out by the discerning critical pencil of Ezra Pound. It underlies the whole conversation in the bar, and comes out with a rush in the very last line when in counterpoint to the slurred sloppy idiom of the bugs going home to a beery sleep in the East End we have the precise pearly tones of Shakespeare's doomed Ophelia going off to drown herself in Elsinore in the fourth act of Hamlet.
When you stop to think about them, Ophelia's troubles were neither more nor less grievous and heart-breaking than those of Eliot's Lil, and it seems quite tasteless to use her as a stick to beat poor Lou and May with.
But that was Eliot's way, the taste and refinement of the past always dragged out to reprove the odious present in which he had to live. Later in the poem we have a dramatic contrast between the lovely luxurious Thames of old::
Elizabeth and Leicester
The stern was formed
A gilded shell
Red and gold
The brisk swell
Rippled both shores
Carried down stream
The peal of bells
with the poor polluted river of today:
"Trams and dusty trees.
Highbury bore me. Richmond and Kew
Undid me. By Richmond I raised my knees
Supine on the floor of a narrow canoe."
The mere mention of Elizabeth and Leicester and white towers is supposed to establish the grace and grandeur of the old time as opposed to the tawdry raised knees of our deplorable century. I suppose that, having all read history books, we are all expected to assume that a queen and an earl in the golden days of 16th-century London would have had deeper and more delicate things on their mind than would a frumpy little typist from Kew in the dreary 1920's. (They must also have had sturdier nostrils, considering that the Thames of Elizabeth's day was an open sewer.) But the poet sees no reason to offer any evidence, and in the text he has chosen to give us, there is no real difference between the two river landscapes except in the decoration of the boats. As to what went on in the boats, there must have been some similarities from which his eyes remain averted. What in the name of the great Jehovah did he suppose Queen Elizabeth did with her knees while Leicester was on top of her?
Compare this mannered and rather unpleasant treatment of gossip to the simple lively lines of an early poem by D. H. Lawrence singled out by the eagle eye of Ezra Pound in a review that helped launch the young writer's career:
I expect you know who I am, Mrs. Naylor!
Who are yer - yis, you're Lizzie Stainwright..
An' 'appen you might guess what I've come for?
- 'Appen I mightn't. 'appen I might."
Beside this living language, Eliot's seems no more than expert journalism. He is safely removed from its subject, well above it in fact, looking down his long nose. While Lawrence is right in the middle of the world he is writing about. He is dealing with the same kind of local lower-class gossip that Eliot was exploiting. It would have been so easy for him to make fun of Lizzie and her love for the handsome feckless policeman Tim Murfin, caught by the wiles of
A widow of forty-five
With a bitter swarthy skin,
To ha' 'ticed a lad of twenty-five
An' him to have been took in!
and babbling out excuses:
After thy kisses, Lizzie, after
Tha's lain right up to me, Lizzie, and melted
Into me, melted into me Lizzie
Till I was verily swelted.
And if my landlady seed me like it,
An' if her clawkin' tiger's eyes
Went through me just as the light went out,
Is it any cause for surprise?
But Lizzie is a determined girl, and after giving her swain a taste of her feelings:
No cause for surprise at all, my lad
After lickin' and snuffin' at me, tha could
Turn thy mouth to a woman like her -
Did ter find it good?
she arranges to buy off Mrs. Naylor for twenty pounds, adopt the baby she is about to have, and off to the marriage registry with her hapless love.
It never occurs to Lawrence to make fun of Lizzie and Tim and Mrs. Naylor, or scorn them for their narrow sordid lives, or treat them as symbols of the decline of the west. In his own life he was as snobbish as the next man, he had as irrepressible a yen for titled personages -- the German baroness he married, Lady Chatterley, Don Ramon and Don Cipriano, the Mexican hacenderos in whose arms the heroine of The Plumed Serpent found God -- as Eliot did for bishops, and he never would have had Lizzie Stainwright or the others in for tea. But he had grown up among people like them, and when he wrote about them he let them live on their own terms, in their own stubborn short-sighted way, he recognized them as individual human beings making their difficult way this way or that way through the world.
This seems to me to be the way to gossip with style and a proper respect for our fellow creatures.
This of course a matter of judgment, and if there is anything Dame Gossip is not, it is judgmental. Beneath her capacious skirts she has room for everybody, for Queen Elizabeth and Lizzie Stainwright, for Ophelia and T.S. Eliot.